Concern over the vulnerability of U.S. nuclear power plants to terrorist attack, raised dramatically by the events of Sept. 11, is taking on an unhealthy political tinge.
Republicans in Congress are accusing Democrats of pushing an “anti-nuclear agenda” by pointing out that Americans continue to be fearful that a nuclear plant will be the target of choice for terrorists.
As the debate over homeland defense ratchets up in Washington, what is needed is less rhetoric - on both sides - and more of a sense of reality.
Those who might want to use the terrorist threat as an excuse to shut down the nation's nuclear plants ought to realize that such a turn of events probably isn't going to happen. Like it or not, some areas of the country, notably including northwest Ohio, with the Davis-Besse plant, and southeast Michigan, with Fermi II, depend on nuclear power for their electricity to such a degree that closing them isn't feasible.
On the other hand, even the nuclear industry itself can't guarantee that a nuclear plant wouldn't suffer substantial damage and release radiation if attacked in the same manner as the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11.
As partisan rhetoric heated up on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee the other day, Richard A. Meserve, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told senators that the government continues to develop computer models of how nuclear plants might fare if hit by an airliner heavily loaded with fuel.
So far, no one knows the answer, but it is safe to say many Americans doubt whether the outcome of such an attack would be harmless. What they fear is that a nuclear plant's reactor containment vessel could be breached, allowing radiation to contaminate the surrounding area.
The nuclear industry's attitude has been cautious. Prior to Sept. 11, the American Nuclear Society says, “the threat of a large commercial aircraft crash into a nuclear facility had generally not been considered.” But because nuclear plants are among the most heavily constructed of all buildings, and because they are carefully guarded, they make “unattractive targets” for terrorist attack and, “even if attacked, are highly likely to survive without a significant release of radioactive material.”
That view was voiced during the committee hearing by Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, who said, “If I were a terrorist, the last place I would try to take over would be a nuclear power plant.”
Of course, Senator Voinovich was missing the point. Terrorists wouldn't try to take over a nuclear plant, just crash a plane into it.
The relative safety of nuclear plants is an emotional topic locally, what with Davis-Besse shut down for replacement of its reactor cap, nearly breached not by an exploding airliner but by simple chemical corrosion undetected over the years.
That's one good reason Mr. Voinovich and his colleagues cannot say with any absolute assurance that nuclear plants are safe and the public has nothing to fear. Maybe before Sept. 11, but no more.
What the public needs is reliable information about the terrorist threat to these plants. Only then will we be able to intelligently decide whether those fears are well grounded.