The New Reality of Nuclear Power

Even before the events of September 11th, the magnitude of the risk posed by nuclear power plants was so great that the federal government should have phased out nuclear power in the United States.

Feature story - May 19, 2003
The incalculable threat of sabotage makes the continued operation of these reactors unacceptable. Nuclear power now constitutes a national security threat.

As the events of September 11, 2001 tragically demonstrated, the risk of a nuclear reactor meltdown must encompass not only the potential for an accident but also the possibility of sabotage. The U.S. government has known since at least the mid-1990's that terrorists were targeting nuclear power plants. According to the Associated Press:

Ramzi Yousef, the convicted mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, encouraged followers in 1994 to strike such a plant, officials say. An FBI agent has testified in court that one of Yousef's followers told him in 1995 of plans to blow up a nuclear plant. And in 1999 the NRC acknowledged to Congress that it had received a credible threat of a terrorist attack against a nuclear power facility.2

Prior to September 11 th and despite the known threat, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff repeatedly attempted to kill the government's program for testing security at nuclear reactors.3 These attempts were in spite of an abysmal security record in which 47 percent of the reactors tested had significant security weaknesses and in over 40 exercises mock terrorists were able to simulate sabotaging safety equipment.4 Rather than addressing the nuclear industry's inability to protect itself from mock terrorists, the NRC has moved to allow the nuclear industry to test itself.

Risk and the Nuclear Industry

Each nuclear reactor has the potential to devastate the region in which it operates. The potential for such devastation lies in the radioactive fuel that fires the nuclear power plant. The radioactive fuel rods, whether inside the reactor or in the spent fuel pool, must be cooled to prevent them from melting down. If a meltdown were to occur in either the reactor or the spent fuel pool, the accident could kill and injure tens of thousands of people, cost billions of dollars in damages and leave large regions uninhabitable.5

The threat of such an accident has long been the subject of debate among government regulators, the nuclear industry and a skeptical public. Not surprisingly, the nuclear industry and those that purport to regulate it have down played the potential of such an accident. However, if the nuclear industry is so confident in the "safety" of its reactors and the long-lived radioactive wastes that they produce, why must the American taxpayer indemnify the industry against the financial consequences of nuclear accident through the Price Anderson Act?6

In reality, nuclear power is an inherently dangerous activity. Splitting atoms is the most complicated and dangerous way to produce electricity. Until recently, we have spoken of the threat posed by a nuclear reactor in terms of the risk of an accident. A basic definition of risk is:

Risk = Probability x Consequences

The "risk" is the risk of a catastrophic accident. "Probability" is the likelihood of an event happening. "Consequences" are the effect that event has on people, property and the environment. According to the government's own studies, the consequences of an accident at one of the 103 nuclear reactors throughout the U.S. would be devastating. Even before the events of September 11th, the magnitude of the risk posed by nuclear power plants was so great that the federal government should have phased out nuclear power in the United States. The incalculable threat of sabotage makes the continued operation of these reactors unacceptable. Nuclear power now constitutes a national security threat.


2 John Solomon, Details of Nuclear Power Left Open, Associated Press, October 24, 2001.

3 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Memorandum to William D. Travers, Executive Director of Operations, From: Captain David N. Orrik USN (Ret.), Security Specialist, NRR, Subject: Differing Professional Opinion Regarding NRC's Reduction of Effectiveness and Efficiency in ther Staff Recommendations of the Follow-On OSRE Program for Nuclear Power Plants, February 3, 1999, pp. 1-3.

4 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Briefing on Safeguards Performance Assessment, May 5, 1999,pp. 54-56.

5 United States House of Representatives, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations, "Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences (CRAC2) for U.S. Nuclear Power Plants" November 1, 1982; R. J. Travis, R. E. Davis, E. J. Grove, and M. A. Azarm, Brookhaven National Laboratory, NUREG/CR-6451, "A Safety and Regulatory Assessment of Generic BWR and PWR Permanently Shutdown Nuclear Power Plants," August 1997, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, "Technical Study of Spent Fuel Pool Accident Risk at Decommissioning Nuclear Power Plants," October 2000.

6 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, The Price-Anderson Act -- Crossing the Bridge to the Next Century: A Report to Congress, October 1998.

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