Nuclear Power Plants: Keep Building on Three Mile Island

Newsweek, November 5, 2001 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Power Plants: Keep Building on Three Mile Island


The reactor chambers of commercial nuclear power plants are among the strongest structures ever engineered, rigid hemispheres of reinforced concrete up to five feet thick, designed to stand up to storms, earthquakes--and, as a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was quick to say on Sept. 11, "the impact of a 747." But he was misinformed. As the commission acknowledged 10 days later, "the NRC did not specifically contemplate attacks by aircraft such as Boeing 757s or 767s, and nuclear power plants were not designed to withstand such crashes." Three Mile Island, just three miles from the Harrisburg airport, is one of only a handful whose containment domes were built to withstand a jetliner crash. A 1982 NRC report noted that the great majority of American plants were considered safely off commercial flight paths.

The consequence of an aircraft's slamming into a nuclear reactor would not be a nuclear explosion. It is physically impossible for the uranium used in U.S. power plants, which typically is less than 5 percent pure, to be fashioned into a Hiroshima-type bomb: nuclear bombs contain uranium that is closer to 90 percent pure. The real danger of a terror attack is the release of radioactive contaminants. Even in that case, scenarios of mass deaths by radiation sickness are probably overdrawn. Only 30 people died of radiation exposure after the 1986 explosion at the nuclear power station in Chernobyl, the worst accidental release of radiation in history; through 1999, the United Nations found, the breach caused 1,800 cases of thyroid cancer. Not a single identifiable death resulted from the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. Radiation exposure can be managed by evacuation, and radiation sickness (as well as many of the subsequent cancers) can be treated. The problem is that evacuation--which could cover hundreds of square miles of densely populated suburbs and cities in the United States--would be, for all practical purposes, permanent: Chernobyl rendered more than 1,000 square miles unsafe for human life for more than 100 years. Might the accidental or intentional crash of an aircraft into a nuclear power plant--whether one built to withstand such a disaster or not--precipitate that? There have been no tests of whether even those plants with containment domes like Three Mile Island's would actually stand up to a crash. The NRC now admits that the agency "could not exclude the possibility" of a radiation release "that could impact public safety."

Terrorists could also target the storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel, which is kept in special pools on site at most plants. …

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