A 9/11 Warning on Nuclear Plants

If I had told you, yesterday, that today two commercial airplanes, loaded with passengers and fueled for cross-country flights, would crash into New York City’s World Trade Center, one into each of the twin tower buildings, and that shortly thereafter both towers would come crashing to the ground, and also told you that the Pentagon would be hit at about the same time, and another plane would be brought down too, you would have called me “Chicken Little”.

America’s nuclear power plants are vulnerable.  And don’t call me Chicken Little.

A structural engineer who appeared on CNN today said that the World Trade Center towers were designed to withstand a 707 crashing into them.  757s and 767s are somewhat bigger than a 707 (but with two less engines).  However, the airplanes probably aren’t directly responsible for bringing down the towers.  The real culprit was most likely the fires they started.

My understanding is that the design criteria for the containment domes of America’s nuclear power plants was that they should be able to withstand the impact of a 727, which is even smaller than a 707.

I don’t know if the design criteria included that the plane would be full of fuel as these planes obviously were.  Whatever the design criteria was, it was never actually tested.   (Note that in a conversation by phone with me in June 2001, Charles Marschall, from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Region IV office in Texas, claimed that a nuclear power plant’s containment dome could withstand an impact from a 747.  He refused to put his claim in writing.  But regardless, would any of us believe it today?)

It should be obvious now that we have no reason to think the nuclear containment domes are safe from planes.  But in any event, many of the systems vital to keeping a nuclear power plant from melting down are located OUTSIDE the containment dome, including the control room, the primary coolant pumps, and other systems.  There are numerous holes in the containment dome for pipes, wire, personnel, and equipment to go through.  Accidents outside a containment dome can affect systems inside the containment dome, and a subsequent meltdown inside the containment dome WILL release radioactivity to the environment.

A meltdown at a nuclear power plant would be 1000 times worse than everything we saw today.

There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that a meltdown would have occurred if one of the hijacked airplanes had been flown into a nuclear power plant.  We can be thankful the hijackers passed over these targets.

The spent fuel pools are outside the containment dome, providing an even easier target than the containment dome.   And, spent fuel storage casks located near some reactors can also be potential targets, and thus add significantly to the danger at those facilities.

In short, America’s nuclear power plants are extremely vulnerable.  And don’t call me Chicken Little.

Our nation’s firemen and other emergency personnel are NOT adequately trained or equipped for handling a severe nuclear radiation emergency, and the evacuation plans for nuclear power plants are absolute garbage.

Everyone recognizes what an incredible job the firefighters, police, and other emergency personnel must be doing, but their task today pales when compared to what emergency personnel would face if a nuke plant was attacked.

All nuclear reactors need to be shut down immediately and permanently, and their waste needs to be stored underground.  (However, I am not advocating Yucca Mountain as a solution.)

Clean, renewable energy solutions do exist, and they are far less vulnerable to terrorism and other calamities than our nuclear power plants, and provide cheaper energy as well. Perhaps quickly switching to safe renewable energy solutions would cause some temporary hardship, but nothing is impossible for our great nation, if we recognize our vulnerabilities and seek to eliminate them as quickly as possible.

I for one, want to know who masterminded this wicked act of ignorance.  But even more, I want to know why we left ourselves so vulnerable in the first place, and why we continue to leave ourselves vulnerable to additional natural and man-made misfortunes?  Today it was an act of man.  Tomorrow it could be an act of Providence. Perhaps an asteroid smashing into a nuclear power plant.  Perhaps an Earthquake.

Perhaps a Tsunami along Southern California’s coast.  But whatever it is, we should no longer be able to say it came as a complete surprise.  Very little should surprise us now.

Russell D. Hoffman lives in Carlsbad, California. He is an educational software developer and bladder cancer survivor, as well as a collector of military and nuclear historical documents and books. He is the author and programmer of the award-winning Animated Periodic Table of the Elements. He can be reached at: rhoffman@animatedsoftware.com