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Nuclear Plants at Risk of Attack

by Josef Hebert, Associated Press
Environmental News Net, April 7, 2005

Scientists say all fuel storage sites need security evaluations

WASHINGTON -- Fuel storage pools at nuclear power plants in 31 states may be vulnerable to terrorist attacks that could unleash raging fires and deadly radiation, scientists advised the government yesterday.

The group of nuclear experts said neither the government nor the nuclear industry "adequately understands the vulnerabilities and consequences of such an event." They recommended undertaking a plant-by-plant examination of fuel storage security as soon as possible.

In the meantime, plant operators promptly should reconfigure used fuel rods in the storage pools to lower decay-heat intensity and install spray devices to reduce the risk of a fire should a storage facility be attacked, the scientists said.

Congress sought the study by a National Academy of Science panel because of heightened concerns that terrorists might seek to target nuclear power plants. The release yesterday of a declassified version of the report followed months of debate with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over how much of the findings should remain secret, and therefore, unavailable to potential terrorists.

At 68 plants, including some already shut down, in 31 states, thousands of used reactor fuel rods are in deep water pools. Dry, concrete casks hold a smaller number of these rods.

Much more highly radioactive fuel is stored in pools than is in the more protected reactors -- 103 in total -- at these sites.

Washington state's only power-producing nuclear reactor, the Columbia Generating Station near Richland, has 456 tons of used fuel stored in a water-filled pool.

Some scientists and nuclear watchdog groups long have contended that these pools pose a much greater danger to a catastrophic attack than do the reactors themselves.

Some plants where pools are all or partially underground present less of a problem. Others, including a series of boiling-water reactors where pools are more exposed, represent greater concern, said Bob Alvarez, a former Energy Department official who has argued for increased protection of used reactor fuel at nuclear plants.

The experts' report "pretty well legitimizes what we've been saying," Alvarez said in an interview.

The scientific panel said reinforced concrete storage pools -- 25-feet to 45-feet deep, with water circulating to keep the fuel assemblies from overheating -- could tempt terrorists.

The report said an aircraft or high explosive attack could cause water to drain from the pools and expose the fuel rods, unleashing an uncontrollable fire and large amounts of radiation.

Gary Miller, spokesman for Energy Northwest, which runs the Richland plant, said the engineering and the construction of the plant's pool "is quite robust." The pool is built from concrete that's many feet thick and interlaced with "wrist-sized rebar."

"The design basis for it is such that it could withstand any reasonable physical attack," Miller said.

Nuclear regulators said they would give the report's recommendations "serious consideration." But the NRC has disputed many findings and suggestions from the experts.

After the classified document was provided to members of Congress last month, the NRC's chairman told lawmakers in a letter that some of the panel's assessments about plants' vulnerabilities were "unreasonable" and that certain conclusions "lacked sound technical basis."

"Today, spent fuel is better protected than ever," Nils Diaz wrote.

The NRC said it believes the potential for large releases of radiation from such a fire "to be extremely low." Still, the agency has advised reactor operations to consider refiguring the pools' fuel rods -- pairing new ones with older ones to reduce the heat.

Nuclear safety advocates said the report recognizes, for the first time, the vulnerability of spent fuel.

David Lochbaum, a nuclear industry watchdog for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the study makes clear that regulators have not acted aggressively enough.

"Three years after 9/11, our hope would have been more of that homework had been done," Lochbaum said.

Columbia Generating Station's radioactive material is periodically moved into massive casks that weigh as much as a Boeing 767 when filled. The next planned transfer of fuel from the pool to the casks is 2008. Fifteen casks have been filled since the plant began operating 21 years ago

Josef Hebert, Associated Press
P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler contributed to this report.
Nuclear Plants at Risk of Attack
Environmental News Net, April 7, 2005

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