Coastal Post Online


June 2002

Nuclear Power Plant Security A Ticking Time Bomb

By Carol Sterritt

On May 18 1980, a glorious and terrible event took place. A massive volcano blew the top off of Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington. People on the mountain but a cautious seventeen miles from its epi-center lost their lives. Tons of ash blew up into the atmosphere.

I was mesmerized by the event and spent much of the day watching CNN's coverage. Later on, I took my raft and headed out to a small man-made lake in Lisle Illinois. Friends saw me in the water and swam out to hang onto the raft's edges and talk with me. I remember chiding them for scattering their cigarette ashes across my legs. However, after they had left for the evening, I remained on the lake. And I noticed that my legs continued to be marred by ash.

Within the hour I realized that since my friends and their cigarettes were now gone, the only explanation for the ash drifting across my body was the volcano rupture some two thousand miles to the northwest of my location. It was a dramatic lesson in the consequences of atmospheric events. It clearly demonstrated the relative smallness of the planet where we live.

On September 11, 2001, another terrible event took place. Often it has been referred to as 'the unthinkable becoming reality." But what happened was not the unthinkable. The French government had faced its own concerns several years earlier that jumbo passenger planes might be hijacked and used as missiles against one of their major buildings. As awful as the attacks on New York and on the Pentagon were, the fact is that the casualty count was low. Some experts who have long pondered the deviant thinking of terrorist organizations worry about the nightmare likelihood of an attack being launched against one of our nation's many nuclear power plants. In their imagined scenarios, the casualty count could be a hundred times greater than that of September 11th. And it would be floating, radioactive ash that would do the damage.

Like the girl on the raft, the victims of the radioactive fallout of that event could live thousands of miles away from the catastrophe. The loss of life could be up to a quarter of a million people. Plus a vast portion of whatever section of our country that was so targeted could be made uninhabitable for decades if not hundreds of years.

But is there any need to focus on these possibilities? After all, our pleasant gang of patriotic officials is constantly talking about the need for security increases and what has been done to improve our nation's defenses against terrorism. Outside of longer lines at the airports, what, if anything, is going on out there?

The report is not good. Tom Ridge, Homeland Security Director, has spent several months coding emergencies, so that we citizens can (if we remember the intricacies of his color chart) know whether a serious threat to our security is painted yellow, orange or red. John Ashcroft tried to persuade Congress to muzzle the free speech rights of religious and environmental groups. How truly related to a secure America these actions might be is not for me to say. But at those sites that could well be our nation's next ground zero, nothing has changed.

Let's examine reports coming from Scott Portzline, of the Three Mile Island Alert Committee. For decades, Portzline, a resident of Harrisburg PA, has studiously examined the many aspects of Three Mile Island's nuclear power plant's security. He was amazed to find detailed blueprints of the facility available as public records. He is perplexed by the fact that the airspace a mere 2.5 miles from the facility serves as the landing pattern for incoming commercial jets. (This means that there is virtually no time for any security force protecting Three Mile Island to determine if a jet is acting appropriately or not. Only at the very last split second would any individual know that a jumbo jet was intending catastrophe rather than just a routine airport landing. Of course, since Three Mile Island has no security force, the point is rather moot.)

But there ought to be a security force protecting this site. Some European news agencies reported that Flight 93, which ended up crashing in a meadow in Pennsylvania, was targeting Three Mile Island. Its trajectory at the time of its last turn appeared far more ominous to the Three Mile facility than to any buildings in Washington D.C.

The actual security design for Three Mile Island is woefully inadequate yet remains the Standard Operating Procedure. Since this security protocol is replicated at the other 102 nuclear power plants operating inside the United States, let's look it over.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) created what they call the "Design Basis Threat" that is, a model upon which the security needs of nuclear installations can be postulated and evaluated. However, the agency remains, according to nuclear expert Daniel Hirsch, seriously behind the curve, "fighting the last war" rather than protecting against threats that can materialize without warning. To deal with the limited threat that the NRC does recognize, the agency requires a nuclear power plant to be guarded by a total of five individuals. It may seem incomprehensible in today's world that targets capable of producing tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties and hundreds of billions of dollars of damage are protected by a mere five guards, but that is the minimum the NRC mandates."

On September 11th, nineteen individuals acted as part of four separate teams, and they hijacked four separate airlines. Yet despite the fact that the NRC must know of Al-Queda and other operatives having links to material which may indicate their long term plans to impact nuclear facilities, no American nuclear power plant has to provide more than five security officers capable of taking out more than three individuals acting as one team. Therefore, none do!

Recently a New York Times reporter walked the beach outside the California nuclear power plant known as San Onofre Nuclear Generating Plant. He was accompanied by a local activist Steve Netherby. Netherby was formerly the editor of "Field and Stream" magazine. He now spends his energy working for San Clemente's Coalition for Responsible Ethical and Environmental Decisions. Netherby and the reporter made their way past the guards and then through an unsecured parking lot and past various workers. From a hill overlooking the plant, he speculated over how easily a van could drive into the lot and a terrorist could then launch a shoulder-fired missile. "It's a target down there. And that makes all of us here in Southern California a target." Mr. Netherby's group has demanded that local towns begin to store iodide tablets in the event of radiation leaks or more serious events. They also ask that Camp Pendleton security troops patrol the facility, and that a loud speaker system be installed along the beaches. They also feel strongly that the Federal Aviation Administration should not have lifted the 10 mile no-fly zone limit imposed immediately after the September 11th attacks.

There is another aspect to the nuclear power plant, terrorist scenario that warrants serious inquiry. The nuclear power industry utilizes plutonium, producing it by the ton. However only a dozen and a half pounds of this substance are needed to create a workable bomb. Citizen groups across the country have long demanded that the utilities use non-weapons grade plutonium, but industry refuses to do so. (Industry depends on a the higher profit margin resulting from their recycling of weapons grade material. Profit, not safety, is always the motto.)

So terrorist organizations look at a nuclear plant as offering them two possibilities. Attack it in the manner that the WTC was attacked and you can immediately harm a quarter million or more Americans with radiation sicknesses, immediate death and for the surviving population, eventual cancers. There would also be the resulting 314 billion dollars in losses to the economy. But the plants also could be targeted in order to allow a group to obtain bomb materials for use in its overall strategy against the United States. Since nuclear power plants are not required to be prepared for any of these following events: More than one insider, weapons greater than handheld automatic weapons, an attack from the sea or from the air, or any attack from "enemies of the United States, whether they are organizations or individuals," it is easy to see why citizen groups are concerned.

During interchanges with NRC officials various individuals have proposed common sense solutions to upping the security level at plants. These ideas have included such things as anti-aircraft weaponry, operated by various members of the United States Armed Services. But NRC officials always have several reasons why such security measures cannot be realized. In one case, an official responded that the United States no longer manufactures the type of anti-aircraft machinery that would be the most appropriate. (As though this wouldn't make a great project for the pork-barreling likes of Lockheed Martin, et al.) The same official noted that the cost of having Army personnel at every plant would be a considerable expense! And way back in 1985, in response to concerns about truck bombs, the committee's answer was unenthusiastic, with many subcommittee members indicating that there were so many ways to destroy a reactor that, if you protected against truck bombs, you'd have to protect against all those other vulnerabilities as well. To them, this indicated a perfect reason to do nothing.

How would other countries handle this situation? I cannot imagine for a minute an Israel that did not have its military stationed at such an installation. European nations also share that philosophy. If it truly remains beyond the budget of most utilities operating such power plants, than the government itself must intervene. But until the public becomes more aware and more outspoken about this problem, things will continue to continue.


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