Flirting with Disaster
Stone, Daniel, Newsweek
Byline: Daniel Stone
Every few years the defenses of the nation's nuclear plants are tested. What's scary is how often they fail.
In early 2009 a team of terrorists managed to enter a nuclear-power plant in the American South armed with machine guns and grenade launchers. After breaking through chain-link and barbed-wire gates, they battled with the plant's guards. Those terrorists who weren't killed were able to disable a critical component of the plant's operating hardware. A meltdown of the reactor core looked imminent, as did the release of radioactive material from waste-storage pools located on-site. The surrounding area faced catastrophic fallout.
Everything up to that point actually happened--sort of. In reality, the attackers were a group of highly trained government operatives--including security consultants and military members on leave--posing as terrorists. Every three years, such teams "attack" each of the country's 104 nuclear-power plants to find weak spots in security. The raids are carefully choreographed: plant managers are given two months' notice to prepare the guards, and the intruders follow a prearranged script to evade them. Still, eight times out of roughly 100 attempts over the past five years, the mock terror teams have successfully broken through those defenses.
Government regulators insist that such failures are, in a way, intentional. The whole point is to find potential security holes and plug them. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency that oversees the industry, insists that inspectors remain on-site until security systems are fixed, and that American nuclear plants are safer than ever. But industry watchdogs aren't so sure. A growing number of plants are nearing the end of their operating lifetimes, and details about the security of existing facilities are classified. "The industry is hiding behind the 9/11 tragedy to withhold information--like which plants have failed tests and repairs that have been made--that should be available," says David Lochbaum, a nuclear analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Worries are particularly acute because the nuclear-energy industry is experiencing a new era of growth. In his State of the Union address in 2010, President Obama asked Congress to consider nuclear power central to America's pursuit of energy security. A month later he proposed $8 billion in loan guarantees to begin building a handful of new plants. "To meet our growing energy needs and prevent the worst consequences of climate change, we'll need to increase our supply of nuclear power," he told a warehouse full of hard hats in Lanham, Md., in mid-February. Leading Democrats, who have generally resisted an expansion of nuclear facilities on safety grounds, were slow to agree. Then, early last month, Energy Secretary Steven Chu agreed to classify nuclear as "clean energy" in hopes of wooing Republicans to pass an energy bill in 2011.
Advanced technology has virtually eliminated the risk of accidental meltdowns, like the one at Chernobyl in 1986, adding repetitive safeguards that allow the plant to shut itself down if operators can't. The bigger problem is the highly radioactive waste that is left over once most of the energy-producing juice has been sucked out of it.
Used nuclear fuel looks like a bunch of black ceramic pellets--each about the size of a Tootsie Roll. They're a mix of uranium, plutonium, and several minor chemicals, and give off about 750 degrees Fahrenheit of heat. The raw material can't be held, or easily stolen to make a dirty bomb. …