Nuclear Nightmare Goes Critical

Michael Steinberg

On October 11, 2001, the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission put the following message on their website: “Our
site is not in operation at this time. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks
of September 11, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has taken the action to shut
down its web site. In support of our mission to protect public health and
safety, we are performing a review of all material on our site. We appreciate
you patience and understanding during these difficult times.”

That’s all the
information you could get from the NRC’s web site exactly one month after the
attacks of September 11. On that same day the FBI warned of more attacks, and
the agency reported that it had requested that supervisors of potential targets,
including nuclear power plants, heighten security.

Also on October
11, however, you could visit the web site of the Nuclear Energy Institute and
click on “plants near you” by state or country, and go to an interactive map
indicating U.S. states with nuclear power plants. Then by clicking on any of
these states on the map you could see the nukes’ names and the towns where they
are located. Such as “Millstone, Waterford, Connecticut”

There you could
also learn that “Used fuel at the shutdown Haddam Neck plant and Millstone is
being temporarily stored in water-filled vaults.” In these cases temporarily
means from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, respectively.

At this same
location you could also click on a link to the “NRC’s Plant Information Books,
where you can find statistics, diagrams and other plant-specific data.” This
link did not work.

The NEI site also
informed the public that NRC “regulations require nuclear plants to take
adequate measures to protect the public from the possibility of exposure to
radioactive releases caused by acts of sabotage.” And that nuke containment
buildings are “designed to withstand the impact of … airborne objects up to a
certain force.

The NEI is the
nuclear industry’s primary promotional and lobbying organization. There are no
statements on its web site addressing the impact of the 9-11 attacks on nuclear
plant security.


Irreconcilable Differences

The nuclear industry’s
second honeymoon is over. Only months ago its top executives were meeting with
highest level Bush administration officials, who soon thereafter parroted the
industry’s call for the construction of new nukes across the US.

Today, were
citizens fully informed of the risks nukes currently posed to their health and
safety, they would likely raise a hue and cry that would bring about a permanent
divorce from the nation’s ill conceived and catastrophically dangerous nuclear
power plants.

Nuclear plant
owners want to keep operating them to make money. Terrorists want to attack them
to bring about more mass murder, as one ’93 bomber of the World Trade Center
testified. The conflict therein makes the simple statement “No Nukes!” more
powerful than ever.

At the Millstone
Nuclear Power Station its new owner,Virginia-based Dominion Resources, echoes
NRC pronouncements that there have been no “credible threats” to nukes.

But the idyllic
pseudo-reality of the Millstone site has already been totally obliterated. There
are more, many more, security personnel, armed with bigger and more deadly
weapons. Jersey barriers abound. Coast Guard cutters with anti-aircraft
capabilities hover in Long Island Sound just off Millstone Point.

Airspace above
the plant is closed, though just how closed is in question. On October 2 the
Boston Globe reported that an unidentified plant buzzed the Vermont Yankee
nuclear plant at 10:30 p.m. on September 13. The newspaper said that the feds
scrambled attack aircraft after the plane “but fighter jets sent to intercept
the aircraft never found it.

Following the FBI
October warning, the Connecticut Coalition Against Millstone (CCAg) removed an
aerial photo of Millstone from its web site at the urging of Dominion. The
utility said the NRC had requested nuke utilities to disappear such images from
their web sites.

Before  September
11 you could walk, bike or drive in the main road leading to the Millstone
plants and proceed on it past them without anyone doing anything to stop you,.
You could hike around its adjacent nature trails and gaze at the wildlife and
containment buildings.

You could proceed
on the road past the plants to a parking lot near the ocean where no one ever
checked you. On the way is a guard shack that was almost always empty. On the
rare occasions when someone was on duty there, the presence of a fishing rod in
your vehicle was all you needed to be waved on.

Off to one side
of the parking lot is a sandy cove, a perfect landing spot. At the sea side of
the lot is a chain link fence with a sign posted on it telling you not to
proceed further. But you could easily step around it and join all the others
fishing beyond, off the rocks around where Millstone liquid radioactive
discharges surge into the Sound.

The warm water
from the plants attracts marine line. One day a few years back when I visited
the spot with a friend, he asked a fisherman if the tuna were still running
there. “Nah,” the old salt complained, “they left after the plant had to shut

Millstone annual
radioactive environmental reports routinely report finding “in the area of the
discharge” radioactive manganese, zinc and silver in oysters; “cobalt-60 in
clams;” and “manganese-54 in scallops.”

There are
hundreds of Millstone radioactive discharges into Long Island Sound each year.
They tend to average an hour each, lasting up to 15 hours according to plant

There are no new
security restrictions on such releases. But the fishing off the rocks, the
boating off the Point, the biking and hiking near the reactor buildings are all

CCAG, as well as
Connecticut state senator Melodie Peters and state representative Andrea
Stillman, have called on Governor John Rowland to deploy the National Guard to
Millstone to boost security. The governors of New York and New Jersey sent
national guard units to nuclear plants in those states after the FBI October
warning. But Rowland refused to follow suit, even after a threat to the Three
Mile Island nukes on October 17.


Apocalypse Now, Radioactive

No one wants to talk about
the dangers of a 9-11 type attack on a nuclear plant these days. But it doesn’t
take an Einstein to figure what a direct hit by a jumbo jet might do. If a lot
or all the radiation got out Connecticut could become a permanent wasteland with
many more victims than on September 11. As could downwind areas.

In the summer
prevailing winds are from the southeast, towards Providence and Boston. During
the winter Nor’easters could take the deadly escaped gases and particles towards
Long Island and New Haven and NYC and beyond. In reality, as in the Three Mile
Island and Chernobyl disasters, the winds could change direction a number of
times, exposing people thousands of miles a way to the toxic releases.

None of these
scenarios are anything anyone really wants to contemplate. But, especially now,
no one can deny their possibility.

Nevertheless, the
NRC continues perpetuating the fiction that there can be any true nuclear
security. On 9-11 the agency recommended “purely as a precaution,” that “all
nuclear power plants, non-power reactors, nuclear fuel facilities and gaseous
diffusion plants go to the highest level of security. Details of the heightened
security are classified.”

Not until 9-21
did the NRC issue a press release, “NRC Reacts To Terrorist Attacks.” In the
release the agency admitted that “the NRC did not specifically contemplate
attacks by aircraft such as Boeing 757s and 767s and nuclear power plants were
not designed to withstand such crashes. Detailed engineering analyses of a large
airliner crash have not yet been performed.”

In this release
the NRC conducts a not very reassuring Q&A session. Some samples:

Q: Is an
attack using an airplane part of the NRC’s design basis threat?

A: No. The NRC
has been in close and continuing contact with law enforcement and the military
regarding this threat.

Q: What
exactly is the so-called design basis threat?

A: The details of
the design basis threat are classified, but it includes the characteristics of a
possible sabotage attempt that NRC licensees are required to protect against.


Billions and Billions of Curies

Nukes’ dangerous radiation
is both in the reactors and their so-called spent fuel pools. Utilities put the
“spent” fuel rods in the pools after they are not longer commercially viable in
reactor operations. But they then become high level—and highly lethal—nuclear

In 1992 Dr.
Michio Kaku, professor of nuclear physics at the City University of New York,
used Northeast Utilities data to calculate that Millstone 2′s spent fuel pool
held one billion curies of radiation. For our purposes curies measure quantities
of radiation. New Haven’s Mary Ellen Marucci, who was working with Kaku then in
the Concerned Citizens Monitoring Network, figured that Unit 2 contained another
billion curies when it was operating.

When a reactor is
shut down to replace some of its nuclear fuel, typically all of its fuel rods
are temporarily placed with the spent fuel in its pool.

“That’s two times
what’s in the reactor when it’s operating,” Marucci told me in 1995. “There’s
untold years of plutonium and other radioactive ash known to be toxic to all
know life in that pool.

Each of the three
Millstone nukes, including permanently shut down Unit 1, has its own pool
crammed with two to three times as many fuel rods as it was originally designed
to hold. Together the three pools contain tens of thousands of pounds of
plutonium and other highly radioactive chemicals. Dominion has applied to the
NRC to put even more rods in Millstone 3′s pool.

Adding to
concerns are unaccounted fuel rods from Millstone 1′s spent fuel pool. During an
inventory there last year, Northeast Untilities could not account for 2 fuel
rods put in the pool in 1972 and last known to be there in 1980. In October of
this year, after a 10 month, $9 million investigation, NU still could not say
where they were.

This despite NRC
regulations requiring utilities to account for all spent fuel rods every six
months. And other regulations mandating the NRC to take its own such audit every
two years. The containment structures around the pools are much weaker than
those around the reactors. Such a containment could be breached “by a Cessna”,
according to former nuclear industry engineer David Lochbaum, now with the Union
of Concerned Scientists.

And while the
reactors are below ground level, the pools are above ground. Both the reactors
and the pools require water-cooling safety systems. These systems are
electrically powered. The Associated Press reported on 9-17 that “If a nuclear
power plant were hit by an airliner, the reactor would not explode, but such a
strike could destroy the plant’s cooling systems. That could cause the nuclear
fuel rods to overheat and produce a steam explosion that could release lethal
radioactivity into the atmosphere.

The AP story also
stated that “a direct hit at high speed by a modern jumbo jet ‘could create a
Chernobyl situation,’ said a U.S. official who declined to be identified.”


Way Out

Unfortunately there are
other ways to attack a nuclear power plant. The NRC has conducted a program of
mock terrorist intrusions into nukes. David Orrick, a former Navy SEAL, until
recently headed up that program. Orrick organized small teams of mock terrorists
to attack nukes. In 1999 he testified to the NRC that the attacks were
successful half the time, despite six months advance warning to the targeted
nuclear plants. Nevertheless, the NRC recently has been considering ending this
program, and substituting one carried out by the nuclear operators themselves.

Some years ago a
former Millstone employee told me about an Orrick team targeting one of the
nukes there. “They got into the control room—undetected all the way—in a matter
of minutes,” he said. Once inside a control room attackers could bring about a
meltdown in a variety of ways.

There is also the
possibility of internal sabotage by disgruntled, mentally disturbed or
criminally inclined employees. On August 19,1997, Carl Drega killed four people
in New Hampshire before dying in a shootout with police. Drega had worked at the
Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, as well as  Pilgrim in Massachusetts and Indian
Point in New York.

There are
documented cases of nuclear utilities hiring people with felony convictions, due
to lax security investigations. In other cases workers have entered sensitive
areas of nukes without authorization or proper ID.

After  September
11 U.S. Second Congressional District Representative Rob Simmons of Connecticut
expressed concern about the vulnerability of Millsotone’s spent fuel pools, as
well as the one in the shutdown Connecticut Yankee plant. Simmons and others
have pointed to that vulnerability as a compelling reason to move all the hot
stuff out of the pools ASAP and transport them to a proposed federal repository
deep in the ground at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

But the
Department of Energy has yet to approve the site, and even if it does, it likely
won’t be operational for another decade. Critics say the site isn’t suitable
because it is in an earthquake zone, has a history of volcanic activity, and
studies indicate that water has already leaked into test caverns where the vast
amounts of high level radioactive waste are supposed to be kept safe and dry for
thousands of years. Dry so that the radwaste won’t migrate into ground water.

representatives in Congress have introduced a bill to create a “temporary” above
ground site storage site at Yucca Mountain a number of times in recent years.
Several times it passed in both houses, but President Clinton vetoed it.


Opponents Call it Mobile Chernobyl

The Washington DC-based
Nuclear Information and Resource Service, using DOE information, has figured
that “even with daily shipments, the program would last at least 30 years … Each
large train cask carries the long lived radiological equivalent of 200 Hiroshima

anti-nuke group Citizens Awareness Network has estimated that there would be
about 1300 such shipments of spent fuel rods by truck, and 325 by rail, passing
through Connecticut.

The 325 rail
shipments would all come from Millstone. They’d travel west through my hometown
of Niantic,including favorite summer spot Rocky Neck State Park, then across the
Connecticut River and along the shoreline, and over the Quinnipiac River into
New Haven. There they’d turn north and roll through Meriden and Hartford towards
Springfield, MA, before turning west. So this proposed solution would result in
thousands of moving targets on the nation’s highways and railways for decades.

There are 103
operating nuclear plants in the US. And more that are shut down, but still have
pools full of deadly fuel rods, as in the cases of the Connecticut and Maine
Yankee plants. Before 9-11, the NRC had allowed such shutdown plants to greatly
relax security at such sites.

Does any sane
person without a financial or political interest in nuclear power doubt that a
real solution, one that can lead to genuine protection of our health and safety,
can only begin when the public applies enough pressure to bring about the same
action that the NRC has taken with its web site?

The Connecticut
Coalition Against Millstone spoke for many of us when it stated recently: “In
recognition of the dangers to the country and as a matter of national security,
we now call on Dominion to close the Millstone Nuclear Power Station and do all
that is necessary to eliminate it as a potential terrorist target.”


Steinberg is the author of
Millstone and Me: Sex, Lies and Radiation
in Southeastern Connecticut