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Fuzzy Science 

"Experts" tout nuke plant safety with discredited information

A story in the New York Times refueled the long-running debate over whether terrorists could in fact cause the meltdown of a nuclear reactor or the spent fuel pools at nuclear plants by crashing a plane into them. In its September 19 article, the Times reported that 19 prominent nuclear experts had concluded that a reactor containment building could easily withstand the force of a jetliner crash. The 19 men, most of whom are retired nuclear industry leaders, and two of whom still work as consultants to the nuclear industry, signed their name to a short article in the journal Science.

"We read that airplanes can fly through the reinforced, steel-lined 1.5-meter-thick concrete walls surrounding a nuclear reactor," the article says. "No airplane regardless of size, can fly through such a wall."

According to the article in Science, the scenario "was actually tested in 1988 by mounting an unmanned plane on rails and "flying' it at 215 meters per second (about 480mph) into a test wall." The engines penetrated only about two inches and the fuselage even less, according to the article.

Ed Lyman, president of the Nuclear Control Institute and a vocal critic of the safety of nuclear plants from terrorist attack, was quick to respond to the assertions in the Science article and in the Times article.

"The Science article displays a lack of awareness of up-to-date technical literature that is especially surprising," said Lyman. "To support their argument, the authors rely on misquotations, unsupported assertions, misinterpretations of data, and unpublished references that have not been peer-reviewed."

Chief among those, say Lyman and Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Watchdog Project for Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, DC, is the article's reliance on only two tests. The first, the 1988 test in which the plane crashes into the wall, has long been in dispute, though it has been repeatedly used by the nuclear industry as proof that a reactor can stand up to a plane crash.

When Creative Loafing asked Duke Energy if its reactors could stand up to the impact of a plane or large explosion, we were given a copy of the same video quoted by the 19 scientists in their article. The video shows an F-4 fighter jet slamming into a concrete wall at 480 miles per hour. The plane is decimated, but the wall remains standing, virtually undamaged. What the video doesn't show is that the wall the 42,000-pound F-4 jet crashed into was 12 feet thick, weighed one million pounds, and was suspended on a bed of air designed to cushion it from impact. And unlike most commercial planes flying today, the F-4 carried water instead of stored fuel. In comparison, the Boeing 767-300 that hit the World Trade Center weighed 412,000 pounds and carried full casks of stored jet fuel.

Sandia National Laboratories, which conducted this test, has taken issue with the nuclear industry's use of it because the intent of the study had nothing to do with the soundness of nuclear reactors and was instead designed to see how far the impact would move the wall as a way to measure impact forces.

The second study the Science article references was conducted by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). Preliminary results of the study indicate that a commercial aircraft like that used in the September 11 attacks isn't likely to penetrate the containment buildings where the reactor is located or other buildings that store irradiated fuel. However, the results of this study are questionable for several reasons, chief among which are that EPRI also doubles as a lobbyist group for the nuclear industry, and that EPRI has so far failed to release details of how the study was conducted, making it impossible to doublecheck.

What Gunter and Lyman say bothers them most is that the 19 nuclear experts, many of whom were involved in designing the reactors in use in this country today, completely ignored 20 years of research by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission which they say showed the true vulnerability of nuclear reactors to terrorist attack.

Among them was a 1982 study conducted at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois for the US Department of Energy and the NRC. It found that if a jet crashed into the concrete containment dome on a nuclear reactor at 466 miles per hour or greater, the explosion of fuel and fuel vapor from the plane could overwhelm shields inside the dome that protect the reactor. At 153 feet long and 336,000 pounds, the Boeing 707-320 used in the Argonne study was considered a large commercial jet at the time. Today's Boeing 767-300, the same aircraft that crashed into the World Trade Center towers, is 180 feet long, weighs 412,000 pounds and carries 23,980 gallons of jet fuel.

Another 1987 study by the NRC at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory found that a 12,500-pound jet had a 32 percent chance of piercing the reactor containment building's six-foot base and an 84 percent chance of crashing through the buildings' dome, which was 2 feet thick. Two other NRC studies done in recent years point to the same conclusions, but none of the NRC's studies were referenced in the Science article.

"The authors of the Science article, many of whom bear responsibility for contributing to the creation of a widely distributed nuclear power infrastructure in this country that is vulnerable to terrorist attack, should take a realistic approach to these risks and help to mitigate the threat to the public posed by the situation that they have created, rather than continuing to deny its potential for grave harm," said Lyman.

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