Tags: Nuclear | Plants | Vulnerable

Nuclear Plants Vulnerable

Friday, 21 September 2001 12:00 AM

NRC spokesperson Victor Dricks told United Press International, "At this time we couldn't exclude the possibility that a jetliner flying into a containment (structure) could damage the facility and cause a release of radiation that could have an impact on public health and safety." Dricks said some nuclear power plants built near airports were analyzed to determine the impact of the crash of a fairly large aircraft. "But nobody conceived that a nuclear plant might become a target of a jumbo jet as occurred on Sept. 11," he said. Engineering studies have not been done to determine what would happen if a Boeing 767 crashed into a nuclear reactor.

"I know that the staff is looking at this kind of question in light of what occurred last week," he added. Dricks said the extent of potential damage is difficult to predict.

The NRC is the federal agency with central responsibility in the event of damage to a nuclear power plant.

Mujid S. Kazimi, professor of nuclear engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, said some nuclear plants closer to cities have been engineered to be more resistant, but only "a few" are designed this way.

"Some are designed only to withstand the lighter airplane," said Kazimi, who specializes in nuclear systems safety.

The containment buildings that house nuclear reactors generally have an outer structure, which for much of the dome is 3-foot-thick concrete containing large amounts of steel rebar. Inside is a steel liner from 1 to 4 inches thick. There are commonly two more concrete walls close to the reactor, each a foot thick and containing steel rebar, but these walls do not completely enclose the top of the reactor. The reactor vessel is about 4 to 6 inches thick and made of high-strength carbon steel. The fuel itself is enclosed in steel jackets.

But a plane could penetrate that structure. According to Kazimi: "The penetration in the concrete depends on the mass of the plane that is penetrating and also its velocity and the angle. There are many engineering factors in it. The critical elements, like the nuclear core and so forth, are usually in the middle of the containment so there are other structures in between the containment building and the nuclear core. Fire resulting from jet fuel could cause coolant loss, but nuclear plants are designed to deal with loss of coolant, he added.

Kazimi said it is not clear if a plane would break open the reactor vessel, but added the resultant fire could cause damage in terms of nuclear release. "Without having seen an analysis that is my hypothesis about it," he said.

No one interviewed by UPI was aware of a study done on the effect of a Boeing 767 crashing into a nuclear power plant. Robert Henry, a mechanical engineer who evaluates severe accidents at nuclear plants told UPI: "Designs that took into account airplane crashes were more likely to be incorporated into plants near airports or military airfields. Some were built with protection against crashing airplanes and some were not."

Henry, a senior vice president of Fauske and Associates, which is owned by Westinghouse Electric Corp., said he believes containment structures in general are relatively resistant to being breached by an airplane, due to being over-engineered.

A spokesperson for one nuclear power plant, Seabrook Station in New Hampshire, said his facility was built to withstand the impact of a bomber crashing into it.

"The unique design of the Seabrook dome is designed, unlike a lot of other plants, to withstand the impact of a bomber-sized aircraft," Alan Griffith said.

The proximity of Pease Air Force Base at the time of construction led to the design but Griffith would not specify the type of bomber upon which the design was based. A Boeing B-52 bomber has a maximum weight of 488,000 pounds. A fully loaded Boeing 767-400ER weighs 450,000 pounds at takeoff.

Concerns about the more severe scenarios that experts consider possible are causing the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute to call for immediate security measures. NCI's research director, Steven Dolley, told UPI, "We believe that it's not likely that the containment of these reactors could withstand a direct hit from a very large jetliner such as a 767 or a 747."

NCI has called for the placement of anti-aircraft guns at nuclear power plants and the immediate mobilization of the National Guard to protect nuclear power installations.

"There are vulnerable elements at nuclear power plants that are not within the containment building," Dolley said. "You wouldn't need to crash an airplane into the containment building to wreak a great deal of havoc. There are some points of vulnerability not within the containment building that if destroyed in an attack could trigger a melt down." Some scenarios show an area the size of Pennsylvania being radioactively contaminated, he added.

A number of experts interviewed expressed concern about spent nuclear fuel, which now is stored outside the containment structure in casks. The casks have been subjected to drop tests and fire tests that have been criticized by some as not being rigorous enough. The threat against nuclear power plants is real, according to Yonah Alexander, who has studied terrorism for 40 years and is director of the International Center for Terrorism Studies at the Potomac Institute in Arlington, Va.

Alexander said he has talked with dozens of terrorists around the world and they often have spoken about attacking a nuclear facility, though usually with a truck laden with explosives.

"There is no end to the imagination of the terrorists and they would be willing to resort to some super-terrorism incident because they do have motivation, they do have the networks, they do have the expertise and the scientists," Alexander told UPI.

(Reported by Joe Grossman in Santa Cruz, Calif.)


Copyright 2001 by United Press International.

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NRC spokesperson Victor Dricks told United Press International, At this time we couldn't exclude the possibility that a jetliner flying into a containment (structure) could damage the facility and cause a release of radiation that could have an impact on public health and...
Friday, 21 September 2001 12:00 AM
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