Nuclear Power's New Promise and Peril - What If a Jumbo Jet Hit?

Article excerpt

The chances of terrorists successfully piloting a fully fueled commercial airliner into a U.S. nuclear power plant and causing a catastrophic release of radioactivity are virtually nil, according to engineers and government authorities.

"We have reviewed the vulnerability of nuclear plants with experts around the country and found virtually no danger that terrorists could cause any kind of threat to a reactor," says Tom Randall, director of the John P. McGovern Center for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs at the National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C., foundation that offers free-market solutions to public-policy problems. "Experts have explained to us that even if a 757 airliner hit, as unlikely as that is in the case of a relatively low-lying building, it would probably not penetrate the containment vessel, and, even if it did, the reactor vessel would still be intact."

The containment vessel is the outer wall of a nuclear power plant's reactor housing. It is generally three feet of concrete reinforced by a closely spaced, quintuple-layered latticework of 2.5-inch-diameter steel bars. The wall is lined with a 1.5-inch layer of steel.

Large-scale experiments that have been done all over the world, principally in the United States, show that such containment walls can fully withstand the impact of a very large jetliner topped off with aviation fuel. "The building would not collapse, and the airliner would not penetrate the structure," says Robert Henry, a former longtime nuclear reactor researcher at the Argonne National Laboratory and now with a consulting firm.

Although the containment vessel--so named because it is designed to contain any destructive release of pressure and radioactivity if a pipe burst--was not built with the notion in mind of resisting an outside attack, it is nonetheless essentially invulnerable to post-September 11 threats, Henry says. …