By Roger Witherspoon
The Journal News (Westchester County, NY)
October 25, 2001 Thursday
Vulnerability study of nuclear plants was open to public
The Journal News
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has known for nearly 20 years that a large
commercial jet could crash through the containment buildings of commercial nuclear
power plants, information that was not removed from a public reading room at the
NRC until after Sept. 11.
The NRC recently removed from the room a 119-page report commissioned for the
government that identified the vulnerabilities of nuclear reactors and included an
analysis that found if a jet crashed into a concrete containment dome at more than
460 mph, the explosion of fuel and fuel vapor could overwhelm shields inside that
are designed to protect the reactor.
The 1982 study was conducted at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois for the
U.S. Department of Energy and the NRC. It remained available to the public, despite
warnings dating to 1994 that terrorists considered striking a U.S. nuclear plant.
Since two jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, the owner of
the nuclear power plants at Indian Point in Buchanan has maintained that the plants
could withstand an aerial attack and that they had the security measures in place to
protect against such an assault. The NRC initially supported that contention, but later
acknowledged that it could not rule out the possibility that a suicide hijacker could
seriously damage a plant and result in the release of some radioactivity.
A spokesman for Entergy, which owns the 27-year-old nuclear plants at Indian Point,
said yesterday that he had not read the Argonne report and was "somewhat
uncomfortable commenting on it."
Spokesman Larry Gottleib said, however, that people should not focus on the
possible destruction of the containment buildings at Indian Point, since "there are
multiple levels of protection on the site."
"There are multiple layers of protection of the core," Gottleib said. "You have to look
at the whole puzzle."
Entergy officials have declined to specify what security measures are in place at
Indian Point, citing security concerns. The plants are protected by the Coast Guard,
the National Guard, local police and private security guards.
Last week, a "credible threat" against the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in
Pennsylvania prompted federal officials to put the plant on a high state of alert and
shut down airspace around it. Harrisburg International Airport and Lancaster Airport
were closed for four hours while military aircraft patrolled the local skies, and the FBI
and state police watched the plant.
Information in the Argonne report was disclosed for the first time yesterday by the
National Whistleblowers Center in Washington, D.C. The organization filed a petition
with the NRC asking for the installation of anti-aircraft weapons at every nuclear
plant site in the country to protect reactor containment buildings and the less-
protected spent fuel pools against air attacks.
"The most damning part of the report is very visual," said Michael Kohn, the
organization's general counsel. "It shows how the missile penetrates through the
concrete. At 466 mph, the full impact load of the plane is passing on to impact the
NRC spokesman Victor Dricks said yesterday that precautions against plane crashes
were not taken before Sept. 11 because "it was never considered credible that
suicidal terrorists would hijack a large commercial airliner and deliberately crash it
into a nuclear power plant."
He would not comment on the report, saying it had been withdrawn for security
The report was based on what was then considered a large commercial jet, the
Boeing 707-320, which is about 153 feet long and weighs 336,000 pounds. In
contrast, the Boeing 767-300, the type of craft that crashed into the World Trade
Center towers, is 180 feet long and weighs 412,000 pounds. It carries 23,980 gallons
of jet fuel.
Entergy's Gottleib said a test at the Scandia Laboratories of an F-4 fighter jet
crashing into a concrete wall indicated that nuclear reactors' containment buildings
could withstand a commercial jet crash. Entergy representatives have been showing
videos of the test to community groups to prove that Indian Point is safe from aerial
assault. Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano has been citing the same test
as an indication that the plants are safe.
But the Scandia test does not, in fact, address the safety of a nuclear plant's
containment wall from an aerial assault. The 1989 test, reported in Science News
Magazine, was conducted for a Japanese firm testing the accuracy of computer
programs simulating high speed jet crashes.
The F-4 weighed 42,000 pounds - about one-tenth the mass of a 767 - had no fuel,
and crashed into a concrete wall 12 feet thick and weighing 1 million pounds. A
containment building is about 5 feet at the base, tapering to only about 18 inches at
the dome. The Argonne study found the dome to be the most likely impact point in a
The report details not only the speed at which the concrete containment buildings
would crumble, but adds that the NRC was wrong to ignore the threat from burning
fuel. It says that the explosion of only about 500 pounds of fuel, or about 83 gallons,
"will be equivalent to the detonation of approximately 1,000 pounds of TNT."
In their petition to the NRC, the Whistleblowers charged that "because all nuclear
power plants cannot protect the public from the release of radiological hazards from
a plane crash, the NRC improperly permitted nuclear plants to continue to operate
under the assumption that there will never be a terrorist airborne assault on a
nuclear power facility."
"This assumption is foolhardy and must end," the petition said.
The group's petition also calls for the creation of no-fly zones over all nuclear
reactors. There are no restrictions over nuclear facilities, Federal Aviation
Administration spokesman Bill Shuman said.
The Associated Press contributed information for this report.