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Are U.S. nuclear power plants safe from a 9/11-type attack?

Your war questions answered

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It depends who you ask.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says yes, nuclear plants are safe.

"Nuclear power plants are inherently robust structures that our studies show provide adequate protection in a hypothetical attack by an airplane," said Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Dale Klein last month, in a press release that appeared on the NRC's website. Hypothetical attacks are among the most dangerous kind. Just ask Boston.

Not everyone agrees with Klein's assurances.

The Committee to Bridge the Gap, a Los Angeles-based nuclear watchdog group, and eight state attorneys general petitioned the NRC in 2004 to require that the United States' 103 nuclear power plants be protected by steel I-beam and cable netting.

In theory, steel netting outside a nuclear plant could shred a jetliner before it hit the plant's exterior concrete shell. By breaking a plane apart before it hit the shell, the likelihood that a plane would penetrate the shell would be reduced. The idea for steel netting came from the 9/11 attacks. The planes that hit the World Trade Center towers didn't fly through the buildings intact. The steel frame of the buildings turned the planes into fire and debris.

The idea that nuclear power plants need to be protected from jetliner attacks is also a product of 9/11.

According to the 9/11 Commission Report (p. 154), alleged 9/11 head planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed revealed during interrogations after his capture that the original plan for 9/11 included 10 hijackings. Targeted buildings were to include "those eventually hit on September 11 plus CIA and FBI headquarters, nuclear power plants, and the tallest buildings in California and the state of Washington."

American Airlines flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center's north tower, flew over New York's Indian Point nuclear power plant on the way to its target. Indian Point is about 35 miles upriver from Manhattan. No nuclear power plant in the country is so close to so many people.

That might help explain why New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo pitched a particularly bitchy press-release fit when the NRC announced that it would not require nuclear power plants to build more protection against jetliner attacks. Cuomo says the NRC has "abandoned its responsibility to protect millions of New Yorkers." Why? Because the "Bush Administration caved in to the nuclear power plant interests over the security of Americans living near these plants," he wrote.

That's a serious accusation. Sadly, the White House's track record on nuclear safety makes it seem like a perfectly reasonable accusation.

In 2004, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suppressed a National Academy of Sciences report that raised concerns about the storage of radioactive waste at the nation's power plants. The NAS pointed out that the nuclear-power industry's practice of storing highly radioactive waste in pools of water adjacent to nuclear reactors is inherently unstable. An attack on these nuclear-waste pools by an airplane could drain the pools, causing the nuclear waste to burn, releasing toxic waste into the atmosphere á la Chernobyl.

The NRC refused to allow the NAS to release a public version of the report, even though releasing public versions of NAS reports is standard practice. To make matters worse, the NRC's then-chairman, Bush-appointee Nils Diaz, wrote a letter to Congress that grossly mischaracterized the NAS classified report.

The Bush-controlled NRC's position in 2004 was that water storage of nuclear waste was fine. Talk about yer nutty coincidences -- the NRC's position was exactly the same as the nuclear-power industry's position. The power industry doesn't want to incur the cost of storing waste in safer, more expensive containers known as dry casks.

What Cuomo is saying, and the Committee to Bridge the Gap is strongly implying, is that the NRC's decision to not require the nuclear-power industry to fortify against air attacks is yet another instance of the Bush-controlled NRC giving the nuclear-power industry exactly what it wants at the expense of public safety.

But at least we're safe from Mooninites.

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