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City At Risk 

Area nuclear plants... vulnerable to disastrous terrorist attack

In the wake of September 11, Governor Mike Easley toured McGuire Nuclear power plant and declared it safe. But like everyone else in North Carolina, there was a lot Easley hadn't been told about the vulnerability to terrorist attack of nuclear plants like McGuire on Lake Norman, and Catawba on Lake Wylie.

Now, a year after September 11, the more than a million people who live within 100 miles of McGuire or Catawba still have little idea of the death and devastation terrorists could wreak if they flew a large commercial aircraft into either of the plants' nuclear reactors, or into their highly radioactive, yet less protected, spent fuel pools.

But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) knows. For 20 years, the federal agency that regulates the nation's 103 nuclear plants has been well aware that the infrastructure of the nation's nuke plants wasn't built to withstand the impact of a plane crash, no matter what nuclear plant owners told the public about the thickness of the walls around the reactor. The NRC had done studies that proved it. But no one spent much time worrying about those studies because the likelihood that a plane would happen to crash into a reactor seemed remote; the idea that terrorists on a suicide mission would aim one at a nuclear plant was unfathomable.

When the planes struck the Twin Towers, everything changed. Rather than move quickly to protect the country's nuclear plants, however, the NRC instead tried to hide the truth.

In the days after September 11, an obscure, 119-page report disappeared from the reading room at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). In it were the results of a study which showed that many of the large commercial aircraft flown today could easily crash through the protective containment buildings that house nuclear reactors, if they flew fast enough and carried enough fuel. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the NRC and other government officials initially denied that the country's nuclear reactors were vulnerable to aerial assault. But too many people knew about this report, as well as others that pointed to the same conclusion. Eventually, the NRC did an about face on the issue. But since the national media didn't do a particularly good job of covering the NRC's flip-flop, most people went about their lives, assuming their local nuclear plant, or in Charlotte's case, plants, were safe from terrorist attack.

The truth can be found in a press release you have to hunt for on the NRC's website. The statement says that nuclear plants "are among the most hardened structures in the country and are designed to withstand extreme events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.

"However," the statement continues, "the NRC did not specifically contemplate attacks by aircrafts, such as Boeing 757s and 767s, and nuclear power plants were not designed to withstand such crashes." The NRC is currently studying the issue, and their analysis is due by the end of the year.

A 1987 report by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for the NRC was more explicit. "The effect of an aircraft of sufficient weight, traveling at sufficient speed, crashing at a nuclear power plant site may result in physical damage and disruption to the plant to the extent that damage to the reactor core and release of radioactive material from the reactor core may result."

Unlike the NRC, Duke Energy officials are frank about the relative strength with which the nuclear reactors at McGuire Nuclear Station were designed.

"We have definitively said they were not designed to withstand the impact of commercial aircraft," said Tim Pettit, manager of nuclear public affairs at Duke.

Although there's been a lack of in-depth coverage of power plant security in the Charlotte region, it's a very important issue. Up to 195,000 people stand to be in a 10-mile zone around McGuire Nuclear Station at any given time. The number jumps to more than a half-million in a 30-mile radius. In addition, some 156,000 people live in the 10-mile zone around Catawba Nuclear Station, just over the South Carolina border.

"It's an issue for every community that lives near a nuclear power plant," said David Lochbaum, a nuclear systems engineer and nuclear safety expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC.

Incoming Mecklenburg County Homeland Security Director Wynn Mabry says Charlotteans should realize that there isn't another community in the country with two nuclear plants in such close proximity. "People in Charlotte should pay attention to your article," he said.

ForewarningMost Charlotteans probably haven't heard about the high-pitched battle currently being fought in upstate New York over the Indian Point Power Plant, but it directly concerns us, and anyone who lives in a high-population area around a nuclear plant.

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