Atomic Terror Alert

by Harvey Wasserman

So if Bush knew something at some time about the possibility of terrorists using jets to crash into government buildings, why didn’t he do something about it before September 11? And far more important: If he knows something about the possibility of terrorists attacking atomic power plants and causing a radioactive apocalypse, why doesn’t he act right now, before we find ourselves in post-tragedy hearings about why he didn’t?

And just for the heck of it, let’s ask another related question: What do you do with a gigantic, highly radioactive piece of metal that weighs 120 tons, has a six-inch hole in its head and is currently "ship-in-a-bottle" locked inside a massive concrete and steel containment dome that’s many feet thick, latticed with powerful rebar steel, allegedly designed to withstand the radioactive fires and pressures of a controlled nuclear explosion?

The rap that U.S. intelligence should have anticipated the possibility of a horrific hijacking like September 11 is not a partisan bauble. The threats were always credible, and there was a way to deal with them_pay for decent airport security.

Paul Krugman of the New York Times placed the blame precisely where it belonged immediately after the disaster: airline deregulation. Terrorists don’t walk onto commercial aircraft with box cutters unless screening is really lax, which it certainly was prior to September 11. Why? Because the airline industry, with its well-heeled lobbyists working Congress and the White House, didn’t want to pay for real precautions. Locks on cockpit doors, armed marshals riding shotgun, trained screening personnel_it wasn’t really rocket science. It could have prevented September 11.

But the White House, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (whose wife lobbies for the airlines) and an army of bought pols simply said: "Don’t bother."

Well, now there are prices to be paid. Bush’s poll ratings won’t shield him from having exploited a horrible human tragedy for which his own corrupt neglect was partly responsible.

But there’s another nightmare in the wings, and the response has been as lax and complacent as what led to September 11. But this time the consequences could be infinitely worse.

The major media is now carrying reports of terrorist threats against commercial atomic power plants to happen on or around July 4. Nuke sabotage has long been considered a credible threat. Bush cited reactor plans found at Al Quaeda hideouts and the Ayotallah Khomeini among others has talked about hitting "nuclear targets."

In short, if warnings of hijacked planes crashing into government buildings prior to September 11 were vague and isolated, warnings of attacks on nuclear plants are clear and abundant.

So has the government reacted? Not hardly. There’s been some heightened ground security and talk of posting snipers. The Nuclear Control Institute has suggested installing anti-aircraft emplacements. But atomic reactors are infinitely complex and vulnerable. There are literally thousands of ways to attack one. The only real security measure is to shut them all down.

Which is doable. The U.S. electric grid is awash in capacity. The alleged "shortages" driving prices through the California roof were fake. Every reactor in the country could disappear tomorrow and there might be some temporary shortages in some isolated areas, but virtually no impact on the national supply.

Where there would be an impact is if one of these threats comes true, a la September 11. A U.S. reactor catastrophe, terrorist or otherwise, could kill hundreds of thousands of people, poison millions, cause trillions of dollars in damage, permanently devastate thousands of square miles and irrevocably cripple the entire U.S. economy. The threats to make all that happen are far clearer and more tangible than what preceded September 11. The administration’s insane response has been to push to build more reactors.

So do we wait for disaster to strike and then hold hearings to determine what the administration knew and when? Or do we find a way to shut these things down before the unthinkable occurs?

We may not have to wait for the terrorists anyway. A six-inch hole burned by boric acid into the head of the Davis-Besse reactor near Toledo recently brought the Great Lakes within three-eighths of an inch of extinction. A tiny, remnant sliver of warped metal may be all that saved millions of people from lethal fallout.

The plant owners want to replace the head. But how do you get it out? Where do you put it once you do? And who’s going to volunteer to be exposed to the incredibly intense levels of radiation involved with this horrendous task?

Every week new horrors emerge, from a full-scale fire in California’s San Onofre plant during the dereg crisis to an endless litany of human errors and mechanical fiascos that bring us ever-closer to atomic catastrophe.

The first jet that flew into the World Trade Center on September 11 flew directly over the Indian Point nuclear reactors, 40 miles north of New York. Had it dived down a minute earlier, all of New York would now be a radioactive wasteland.

It didn’t then, but it could be happening now. George W. Bush may duck what he knew and didn’t know on September 11. But we all know plenty about 103 sitting duck commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S., and the 430-plus worldwide.

Credible threats have been made. The reactors are vulnerable. Their power is not needed. What are we waiting for?




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