Terror and Error

It is widely known that a large jet---or even a small plane laden with explosives---would not have to actually breach a reactor containment to cause a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.  The resulting fires alone could do potentially fatal damage.  Radiation at Three Mile Island escaped through the venting stacks, not a cracked containment. 

All reactors teeter on the brink of disaster, with delicate vulnerability in the control room, wiring systems, cooling pumps, spent fuel pools, off-site power, off-site communications systems, and innumerable other hot spots.  Repeated security tests indicate the industry simply cannot protect all or even most of these vital points from a concerted terror attack, by air, land or sea.

The consequences of such a disaster are unimaginable.  The 1986 explosion at Chernboyl Unit 4 has caused thousands of confirmed casualties---including a plague of cancers, birth defects and reproductive disease---and done at least a half-trillion dollars worth of damage. 

Chernobyl's radioactive cloud was detectable all over the world, and did untold (though  largely un-measurable) harm.  But Chernobyl's worst radioactive fallout rained down on a relatively unpopulated rural area. 

Today, dozens of American reactors, like Indian Point, are sited in regions that are very thickly populated.  A study by the Sandia Laboratory warned that a reactor accident could kill 3400 people in the short-term, cause 45,000 long-term casualties and irradiate a land mass "the size of Pennsylvania." 

Today those casualty estimates would have to be multiplied many times over.  And the economic consequences of rendering places like southern New York state or, indeed, Pennsylvania itself, are simply beyond calculation.  One thing is certain---the US economy would be hard-pressed to recover from a full-blown catastrophe.

Sadly, it would not require a terror attack to do that kind of damage.  Error is also very much with us.  Ohio's Davis-Besse reactor came within a fraction of an inch of catastrophe after plant operators failed to detect a boric acid leak that had eaten nearly all the way through a six-inch thick reactor pressure vessel.  A cooling tower at Vermont Yankee recently collapsed without warning (except from environmental groups, which predicted its probability, and were scorned by the industry).  An earthquake in Japan has done significant damage to the world's largest reactor complex, with a high likelihood of still more shocks.

Between terror and error, warfare and human shortcomings, building and operating atomic reactors is a risk that's not worth taking.  Certainly the private insurance industry understands that, which is why the industry can't get coverage from anyone except the taxpayers. 

What terrorist will ever think to destroy our cities and kill our citizens by crashing a jet into our wind farms or solar panels?


Union of Concerned Scientists

Greenpeace USA

Nuclear Information & Resource Service

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