One spring day in 2002, an inmate escaped from a state prison farm in Richmond County and, seeing a train heading north, jumped on. He jumped right off when he saw the armed security guards and state troopers aboard. Clearly, he'd picked the wrong train. This was the one that runs regularly from Progress Energy's Robinson nuclear power plant in Hartsville, S.C., to the company's Shearon Harris nuclear plant in southwestern Wake County. Heavily guarded, it carries thick concrete canisters containing spent nuclear-fuel rods bound for storage in the cooling pools at Shearon Harris. The fuel rods are loaded with highly radioactive materials--the kind of thing you wouldn't want a terrorist stealing or blowing up.
The episode might never have become public, except a watchdog at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington spotted the cover letter to a classified report that the company was required to make about the incident to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. When it came to light more than a month later, Progress Energy's critics said it proved the folly of transporting nuclear wastes from place to place. What if it had been armed terrorists jumping aboard? the critics demanded.
They'd have failed, Progress Energy replied. The inmate, and another one, were quickly apprehended. The episode only underscored how well-guarded the trains are, the company said. "The federal government obviously concurs, or they wouldn't let us continue shipping," a company spokesman told a Florida newspaper.
Before Sept. 11, that might have been the end of it.
But this was after Sept. 11.
Progress Energy is the only utility in the country that's shipping nuclear waste. And four weeks ago, still conceding nothing about the safety of transporting spent-fuel rods on trains, the company announced that it may end the practice and make the shift to storing nuclear waste in dry-cask storage containers on-site at the Robinson plant and its Brunswick plant in Southport, N.C., which also ships spent fuel to Shearon Harris.
The reason for the change? If they do it--and it's "very likely" they will, says Rick Kimble, Progress Energy's nuclear communications manager--it will be a business decision involving licensing issues and the cost of getting the shipping canisters approved, as they must be every five years, by the NRC.
But putting those wastes in dry casks on-site is exactly what the critics, mainly the Durham environmental group N.C. WARN, have been pushing the company to do for years. "Progress's announcement is a strong step in the right direction," said Jim Warren, the group's executive director.
Even if Progress Energy isn't heeding its critics and still thinks they're wrong, there is implicit in Kimble's answer an acknowledgement that the NRC may decide the critics are right--that in the new era of the war on terrorism, there's unnecessary danger in shipping nuclear material. It also acknowledges a concern the industry has consistently downplayed: Nuclear power plants may become terrorist targets.
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the NRC routinely dismissed the chance that terrorists might pose a threat to the nation's 103 functioning nuclear power plants as "remote and speculative," which meant that they weren't going to factor it into their risk-assessment analysis.
As a result, the maximum threat the NRC required utilities to consider when formulating their plant security plans was a lightly armed group of saboteurs aided by a single renegade employee inside the plant. Only after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in 1993 with a truck bomb was the "design basis threat," as it's called, amended to include the possibility that the attackers might use a truck bomb. One truck bomb.
Now, of course, the threat of a coordinated terrorist attack isn't remote or speculative; it's all too present and real. And a nuclear plant's most dangerous target, according to a new study presented in a Princeton University journal, would be tightly packed pools of spent nuclear fuel like the ones at the Shearon Harris plant--among the biggest concentrations of its kind in the country.
The study raises the same issues about spent-fuel pools that N.C. WARN used in fighting the storage methods at Shearon Harris back in 1999 and 2000--a fight it lost when the NRC rejected all its claims.
Indeed, several of the eight co-authors of the Princeton study are the same experts N.C. WARN organized, and the Orange Commissioners paid, trying unsuccessfully to keep Progress Energy from doubling the number of functioning waste-storage pools at the Harris plant from two to four.
The study, "Reducing the Hazards from Stored Spent Power-Reactor Fuel in the United States" in the journal "Science and Global Security, " says that if, somehow, the cooling pools ever lost water and the spent fuel in them caught fire, an exothermic chain reaction could occur with catastrophic results that would contaminate much of North Carolina and kill thousands.
Progress Energy says it's an unproven theory, but even if it's right, the pools are completely secure, will never lose water, and there are multiple backup methods for refilling them in case of mishap. A pool fire, it says, will never cause a catastrophe.
What happens if an airliner loaded with jet fuel is crashed into the building at Shearon Harris that houses the four waste-storage pools? Would it be the disaster we could have prevented but didn't?
No, Progress Energy says. Even a loaded jetliner would not destroy the pools.
"We can protect against anything except acts of war," Kimble, the company's nuclear spokesman, says.
His comment reflects the official position of the nuclear energy industry, which is that its plants are designed to withstand earthquakes, tornadoes and winds up to 300 mph, so they could handle an airliner, too. They are not designed to withstand attack by a foreign country armed, say, with nuclear missiles or the latest bunker-busting bombs. Throughout the Cold War and now, the law makes the protection of nuclear plants in time of war the responsibility of the federal government and U.S. armed forces.
"While nuclear plants cannot be guaranteed to be impervious to every imaginable threat," says the Nuclear Energy Institute, which speaks for the industry, "commercial nuclear reactors are designed and constructed with that extremely remote possibility (of an airline crash) in mind."
Former NRC Chairman Richard Meserve, who left office last month, said in U.S. Senate testimony last year: "It should be recognized that nuclear power plants are massive structures with thick exterior walls and interior barriers of reinforced concrete. ... [T]he structures inherently afford a measure of protection against deliberate aircraft impacts." In addition, he said, "defense-in-depth measures," including backup power and pumps, provide "a capability to respond to a variety of events, including aircraft attack."
The industry's research arm, the Electric Power Research Institute, published a report in the journal Science in late 2002 that said a Boeing 767, fully loaded with fuel and flying at 350 mph, could not penetrate a nuclear reactor containment dome, which is 12 feet thick and made of steel-reinforced concrete.
The institute's report drew on the results of a prior test by the Sandia National Laboratory. But Sandia subsequently disclaimed the institute's conclusions, saying its test results weren't relevant to the plane crash issue. A study conducted 20 years ago by the Argonne National Laboratory indicated that the lighter Boeing 707, flying 466 mph, could penetrate a reactor containment dome, N.C. WARN points out.
"Whether a nuclear plant could protect itself against 11 September scale threats is a great unknown," Dr. Edward Lyman, a nuclear physicist and scientific director of the Nuclear Control Institute, said in 2001, shortly after Sept. 11. NCI is a watchdog group in Washington.
This March, Lyman told a U.S. House energy subcommittee that the NRC was "dragging its heels" in responding to the enhanced threat, and the nuclear industry is "bitterly resisting" paying for added security.
If the industry can't afford to protect nuclear plants and remain economically viable, he said, and it wants the taxpayers to protect them instead, then "Congress should assess how its constituents feel about using their tax money for this purpose," he said.
Lyman is one of the eight co-authors of the Princeton journal article, the gist of which is:
The 36-page article, plus an accompanying 119 footnotes, is written in the low-key language of hypothesis and potential consequences, with lots of equations, air plume dispersion analysis and the like. It concludes with a set of recommended "possible actions to correct for the obvious vulnerabilities" of the cooling pools, along with a plea that the issue be the subject of further analysis by the NRC and "democratic debate" in public--consistent with security requirements for some secrecy on the technical details.
The Princeton journal article prompted a letter to NRC Chairman Meserve from U.S. Rep. David Price, the Chapel Hill Democrat whose district includes Shearon Harris. Price, after expressing "my continuing concerns related to potential terrorist threats to nuclear power plants," cited the article and asked the NRC to respond to it. "I assume that the NRC will give full consideration to the rationale and recommendations provided by this study," Price wrote.
In an interview last week, Price said he's awaiting the NRC's response and is not taking any independent action in Congress. Price has received $36,650 in campaign contributions from Progress Energy since 1993, making the company one of his biggest corporate supporters.
Margaret Brown, chair of the Orange County Commission, said she was pleased that the Shearon Harris litigation, funded by Orange taxpayers, "is coming to fruition" with the Princeton publication and new pressures on the NRC to act on the waste-pools issue nationally.
It's not at all clear, however, that the NRC's policies will change. In March, one commission member, Edward McGaffigan, attacked the article, after which the NRC's research office was directed to produce "a hard-hitting critique" to undermine it. The critique hasn't been issued to date.
The battle lines are being drawn, however. In a separate article written for a New England citizens group, Dr. Gordon Thompson, another of the Princeton co-authors, says bluntly: "Nuclear power plants and their spent fuel can be regarded as pre-deployed radiological weapons that await activation by an enemy."
Thompson, a Clark University research professor and head of the watchdog Institute for Resource and Security Studies in Cambridge, Mass., is a longtime critic of densely packed cooling pools. He was the star witness that N.C. WARN and Orange County tried so hard to get the NRC to listen to--and Progress Energy fought to block from testifying--when the issue of the company's two additional pools came to the agency in 1999-2000.
The NRC did not take any testimony on the subject, listening only to arguments about whether it should. It then ruled that there was no issue in the case--that cooling pools were safe and the threat of terrorist attack too "remote and speculative" to consider.
Recently, Thompson's phrase--"Predeployed Radiological Weapon"--has been adopted by N.C. WARN's Stan Goff, who used it as the title of his own analysis, subtitled "Reducing the targetability of Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant and the risk to the North Carolina public."
Goff, a retired U.S. Army special forces veteran and military trainer who previously worked for Democracy South, the political reform group, joined N.C. WARN last year as a security analyst. His analysis builds on the Princeton thesis: If spent-fuel rods are shifted to dry-cask storage, Goff argues, the casks themselves, which are made of thick concrete, should be protected from attack by surrounding them with earthen berms so they can't be hit by shoulder-fired missiles.
Cooling pools, Goff maintains, are exactly the sort of target terrorists will try to hit, because in doing so they would be turning our prized technological strengths against us--in military jargon, they'd be using an "asymmetrical strategy" to offset a more powerful enemy's advantage--just as they did by hijacking airliners on Sept. 11, 2001.
The pools at Shearon Harris would be "highly desirable," he says, because there are four of them--three in use and the fourth approved for future use--all in the same building.
Progress Energy, in response, says the pools are a most unlikely target because the building they're in is so well-defended. Combined, the building walls and the pool walls are as difficult to penetrate with a weapon--even an airliner--as the containment dome that protects the nuclear reactor itself, the company says.
Moreover, Kimble argues, it's one thing to fly a jet at high speed into a skyscraper, because the altitude of the building affords a pilot maximum control and flight speed. Hitting a low-lying building like the pool-containment building, or even the reactor containment itself, entails slowing down and loss of control, not to mention the need to dodge transmission lines coming in.
The difference, he says, is between the devastation caused by hitting the World Trade Center towers dead-on and the damage--severe but not catastrophic--that resulted from the third plane that hit the Pentagon a little off-target, apparently, and at much lower speed.
It's Progress Energy's position, Kimble says, that terrorists would not choose to attack a waste-storage building because the chance of success would be so low, compared to, say, a chemical plant or a stadium full of fans.
And if they did, he says, the building could withstand it. "The antis," he says, referring to N.C. WARN, "can tug on emotions. But when it comes down to the facts, and there's no reason to do it, then why do it?"
He concedes only that it's "healthy" for watchdog groups to keep an eye on the NRC, but that ultimately, it's the NRC that must assess the facts and protect public safety. Progress Energy's critics "don't have the science to back up" their arguments, he adds. "It's not healthy to lob grenades of misinformation out there."
What's the science?
The authors of the Princeton study are scientists and engineers with expertise in nuclear technology. They include, in addition to Lyman and Thompson: Frank von Hippel, who runs the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton; Allison Macfarlane, a researcher at the Center for International Studies at MIT; Robert Alvarez, now a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, who served as a top science adviser to the U.S. Department of Energy during the Clinton administration; and three private consultants working in South Korea, Germany and New Jersey. (Because Alvarez comes first in the alphabet, the study is sometimes called "the Alvarez report.")
They make a straightforward argument. Waste-storage pools were never designed to hold as many fuel rods as they now do. When the pools were designed, the assumption was that a relatively few fuel-rod assemblies, straight out of the nuclear reactor core following refueling, would be immersed for just a few years--until they'd cooled down enough to be reprocessed or put in dry storage and air-cooled. Federal policy at first anticipated reprocessing (recycling) the fuel rods. When, in the 1970s, President Carter decided that reprocessing plants in other nations would allow them to secretly develop nuclear weapons (as North Korea may have done), he stopped it in the United States and initiated work on a permanent repository for spent-fuel wastes somewhere in the country.
The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada, selected last year by President Bush, is the result of that shift in direction. But the national repository was supposed to finished by 1998. Instead, the earliest it could be ready is now 2010, and the nuclear industry says it'll be 2015 at least--if it goes ahead at all.
Meanwhile, however, the fuel-rod assemblies began piling up at every plant, forcing a change in storage methods. Where initially the fuel rods were loosely arranged in the pools, with lots of space in between, gradually they've been packed in tighter and tighter.
Too tight, though, and radioactive fuel--if the water ever drained out--could go "critical," meaning the same sort of chain reaction that takes place when they're packed in together in the reactor core.
So the NRC approved what's called "re-racking."
Picture big metal egg crates in a deep pool of water. Originally, the egg compartments, each one holding a zirconium-clad tube containing 289 fuel rods, had open sides. The reason: Just in case the pools ever did lost water, air could get to the cladding and serve as a back-up cooling system.
This was called open-racking.
But as more and more fuel rods went into the pools, and the zirconium-clad tubes got to within a couple of centimeters of each other, the air back-up system wasn't enough. So the industry "re-racked," enclosing the sides of the egg boxes with boron walls designed to stop a chain reaction from starting (boron absorbs neutrons) in the absence of water.
As far back as 1979, a study done for the NRC by Sandia National Laboratory found that, in case of a sudden loss of water, fuel rods packed so closely together--if they'd been underwater less than a year--were likely to heat up and burn the zirconium cladding, which had the potential to set the older fuel in the pool on fire too.
"This would result," the Princeton article summarizes dryly, "in the airborne release of massive quantities of fission products."
Depending on how long the other fuel rods have been underwater and how many catch on fire, the authors of the Princeton study say, the conflagration could dwarf the damage done by the reactor meltdown at Chernobyl, in the former Soviet Union, in 1986. There, a rural area half the size of New Jersey was contaminated; 100,000 people were moved out of it; cancer death rates shot up.
A 1987 study by the Brookhaven National Laboratory, they point out, tried to model what would happen and concluded that other fuel--in the pools between a year and two years--would also catch fire. And fuel even older that than might be at risk once the zirconium cladding has fallen away and the fuel rods drop to the bottom of the pool, essentially creating a "bed" of fire below.
The Chernobyl release totaled 2 megacuries of cesium-137, an especially deadly isotope. The typical waste pool, fully packed, contains about 35 megacuries, according to the Princeton authors. If even 10 percent of it were released by a pool fire in an urban area like ours, look out.
The NRC has never studied the consequences of a pool fire because it has always regarded the chances of cooling-water loss as so low as to be a practical impossibility, the authors note. "Now it is necessary," they say, "to take into account the potentially higher probability that a terrorist attack could cause a loss of coolant."
In 1997, they add, an NRC-commissioned study estimated that a core meltdown release of 8 to 80 megacuries of cesium-137 could result in 54,000-143,000 additional cancer deaths, a vast loss of agricultural land and total economic losses of between $117 billion and $566 billion.
The Princeton authors ask the NRC to consider installing blowers and sprinkler systems in waste-pool buildings, but its "central" recommendation is that dense storage--the re-racking with boron--be discontinued, and that nuclear plants be required to go back to the old open-rack system.
Within a decade, they argue, nuclear plants should remove three-fourths of the spent-fuel assemblies in their pools, leaving only the "hottest" ones, and put the rest into dry casks. The cost to the industry, they estimate, would be between $3.5 billion and $7 billion, raising electricity rates on average by between 0.4 and 0.8 percent.
The Shearon Harris pools
Most of the nation's nuclear plants have already turned to dry-cask storage because, even with re-racking, their waste pools are filled to capacity. Until Yucca Mountain happens, or some other national repository is established, "you've got two choices, wet storage and dry storage," as Progress Energy's Kimble says.
But Shearon Harris is an anomaly in the industry, because it was designed originally to have four reactors, not just one. Though the 1978 accident at Three-Mile Island in Pennsylvania stopped the other three reactors, the four waste pools had already been built. (No new reactors have been licensed in the United States since Three-Mile Island.)
That's why two of the Harris pools remained unused until recently, and why Progress is still able to put the "oldest, coldest" fuel from its Robinson and Brunswick plants into a Harris pool. It's the only private utility still shipping nuclear wastes in the United States, though the military still does it here and it's done widely in Europe and Asia.
Re-racked for dense packing, Harris has storage space for 20 more years even if the Robinson-Brunswick shipments continued, Kimble says. But Harris expects to stay in use longer than that, so rather than run out of pool space for its own spent fuel, Progress is thinking it could put dry casks in at the other two plants and buy itself more time for Harris' wastes.
Since Sept. 11, the NRC has ordered nuclear plants to stop conducting media tours, but
The Independent was allowed to visit the pool-storage building in 2000. It's not constructed to the same, 12-foot thickness as the containment dome around the reactor core, but it is reinforced concrete, 4-6 feet thick, according to Kimble, and the walls that surround each of the four pools are also reinforced concrete, up to 8 feet thick, and sit on top of a 12-foot-thick concrete block.
The effect, Kimble says, is containment-like: An airplane, or missile, would have to break through the exterior walls and keep going with enough strength to penetrate the pool walls before the stored fuel rods would be in any jeopardy. Even at that, the pools are 40 feet deep, and the fuel-rod assemblies only 13 feet tall, so there's a cushion of time for plant operators to start pumping back-up water before the tubes would be uncovered, the hottest fuel rods would start heating up, and the zirconium cladding would ignite, releasing radioactivity into the building.
The exact specifications of the building are kept secret, for security purposes, and Kimble declined to say how thick the roof is.
It's the roof, however, that the Princeton authors think could be compromised in an air attack. The blast from an airliner explosion might not be sufficient to destroy a pool by itself, they say, but it could collapse the building into it. Or the turbine engine from a diving fighter jet might be able to punch through and puncture a pool wall.
And then there's the possibility of an act of war. The Princeton study notes that back in the 1970s, the German government took precautions--it was staring at Soviet missiles--and ordered that both nuclear reactors and waste-storage pools be housed within thick-walled containment structures.
Later, when its pools were full and it needed to move to off-site storage, Germany chose to use dry storage in cast-iron casks "stored inside reinforced-concrete buildings that provide some protection from missiles."
Substitute earthen berms for concrete buildings, and you have the N.C. WARN position.
The post-Sept. 11 risks posed by the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant will be the subject of a "Citizens' Hearing" Saturday, May 31, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Salem Elementary School, 6116 Old Jenks Road, Apex. Co-hosts are N.C. WARN and Public Citizen, a national advocacy group.
Speakers will include Robert Alvarez, a co-author of the Princeton journal article and former senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Energy, and Arjun Makhijani, president of the Insititute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) in Takoma Park, Md., who has proposed alternatives to a national waste depository in Yucca Mountain, Nev. For information, call N.C. WARN at 416-5077.