IN THE NUCLEAR AGE, SECURITY MEANS…
ENDING THE NUCLEAR AGE
At this writing, it has been three months since September 11th. There are no more words available or needed to describe the day, nor its effects upon the people of the U.S. and the American psyche. Everyone knows, and any further efforts fail due to triteness, overstatement, ennui or insufficiency.
But imagine this, and where we could be today: It is the morning of September 11, 2001, and Flight 93, takes off, as it did, from Newark airport in New Jersey, bound for California. But in this scenario, the plane takes off on time, at 7:21 am—not 40 minutes late as it actually did. The plane heads west in the early light, but as it passes near Cleveland, there is a struggle in the cockpit, and hijackers gain control. The plane turns around, flying south near Pittsburgh, and then east, accelerating over the Pennsylvania countryside. At the same moment, two jetliners from Logan Airport in Boston are nearing the World Trade Center in New York. A third, which took off from Dulles Airport in suburban Virginia, has also turned back East and is nearing its target, the Pentagon.
At 8:46 am, the first jet hits one tower of the World Trade Center. Not long afterwards, the second jet hits the second tower. Another passenger plane is streaking toward the Pentagon.
Flight 93 continues on the path toward its target, just minutes away. Some passengers have cell phones, and call their friends as the plane begins descending, flying much too fast, but there is little time to learn and comprehend what is happening, and no time for heroes. Because it took off on time. As Flight 77 smashes into the Pentagon, Flight 93 screams low over the river and finds its target. But the river is not the Potomac, and the target is not the White House or Capitol.
The river is the Susquehanna, and the target is Three Mile Island.
Flight 93 and its passengers collide with the containment building of Three Mile Island Unit 1 at a speed of 450 miles per hour. The impact pulverizes much of the concrete on the west side of the building, although the steel reinforcing rods prevent a collapse of the structure. Still, there is a visible hole where contact was made. Thousands of gallons of jet fuel are on fire throughout the TMI complex, burning electrical wires (off-site power is lost almost immediately), and control room cables. The control room becomes uninhabitable, the turbine room is full of smoke, the emergency diesel generators are in flames, the oil used for them afire from the heat and flames generated by the jet fuel.
TMI employees are running, scattering. A few head west away from the intense fire and heat and jump into the Susquehanna; the luckier ones, on the other side of the plant, go to the east and flee down the road toward Middletown.
The reactor itself is uncontrollable, the computerized systems are dead, the cables burnt, the operators can’t even stay in the control room in the unbearable heat and smoke. Pipes are smashed, and water no longer reaches the core, and TMI-1 begins to melt.
The nation watches in shock as the World Trade Center towers collapse on live TV, as smoke billows across the National Mall from the burning Pentagon. But in Pennsylvania, the terror is only beginning.
With no coolant, the fuel inside TMI-1 reaches 4,000 degrees, then 5,000, then 6,000. It begins to melt through the six-inch steel reactor vessel, dripping onto the containment floor, its deadly radioactivity released and wafting through the 20-foot hole in the upper part of the building.
By 4 pm, nearby Middletown has become a permanent ghost town, evacuated forever. Many of its residents already are sick from radiation exposure, and soon will die. Firefighters pour water with high-pressure hoses from as far away as possible, boats spray water from the river, helicopters circle overhead attempting to drop water and sand through the hole in the containment building. Most of these heroes will die within weeks.
The traffic jams on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate-81 stretch for miles. Those stuck in them, where the wind blows, will never get out of them. In Harrisburg, Governor Tom Ridge unsuccessfully tries to take control of the chaos; he goes on TV urging a calm evacuation, but the public ignores him. Dozens die from traffic accidents, which only slow down the evacuation and kill still more. Ridge himself has received a fatal dose of radiation by flying over the plant and the evacuation areas, and stopping to engage in meetings with the media to encourage an orderly exit from central Pennsylvania.
A few weeks later, President George W. Bush announces that New York Governor George Pataki has agreed to become Director of the new Office of Homeland Security. As his first official duty, Pataki speaks at Ridge’s funeral.
On December 11, 2001, three months after the attacks, President Bush speaks at the new capitol of Pennsylvania—Philadelphia--in a service to mourn the 21,000 who died as a result of Flight 93. New estimates of the cost of the catastrophe are above $200 Billion, not counting the costs of the permanent interdiction of most of central Pennsylvania. Because the attack involved terrorism, and not an accident, Bush declares the Price-Anderson Act, with its $8 Billion in nuclear industry liability available, null and void. Instead, he says, Congress will have to pass emergency legislation to begin to pay for damages and meet the region’s needs.
The already battered Dow Jones Index drops to below 7,000 for the first time in years. Meanwhile, several interstate trucking firms declare bankruptcy, as they can no longer drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and alternative routes, through less-contaminated areas in Maryland and West Virginia are too expensive and take too long.
At the December 11th memorial, Bush speaks movingly of those who sacrificed their lives in their attempt to save the people of central Pennsylvania, and of those who are willing to sacrifice their lives now in the mountains of Afghanistan. And then, with executives of Exelon applauding from the stage, Bush vows to reopen the nation’s nuclear reactors—all have been closed since September 11--and to seek new means to encourage the construction of new reactors to assure America’s energy independence.
Far fetched? Perhaps, but perhaps not. The London Sunday Times ran a circumstantially convincing article on October 21, 2001 that Flight 93 may well have been heading for Three Mile Island. The Washington Post reported on October 30 that an Osama bin Laden associate named Salahuddin Khaled, jailed in Afghanistan, said that the September 11 hijackers should have flown into a U.S. nuclear power plant. The International Atomic Energy Agency has admitted that no commercial reactors in the world are designed to withstand the impact of a large jetliner at high speed with a load of fuel. The U.S. NRC reluctantly was forced to follow suit. While Three Mile Island may have the most robust containment in the country, being built on the flight path to Harrisburg Airport, there is no certainty that it would handle a passenger jet crash even as well as it does in this fictionalized version of events. Other reactors in the U.S., or anywhere else, would fare worse, most much worse.
And there is certainly little reason to believe that the nuclear industry, nor the Bush Administration, nor much of the U.S. Congress, have learned anything from the events (and perhaps near-events) of September 11. Indeed, the industry and its Congressional supporters have continued as if nothing ever happened, as if, because of luck or timing or targeting or the acts of heroes, nuclear reactors were never in danger and never will be.
Instead, the U.S. House of Representatives in November agreed, under a procedure called Suspension of the Rules (normally reserved for non-controversial issues such as naming of post offices), with only about 15 Members present, to reauthorize the Price-Anderson nuclear insurance liability scheme that would pay only about 10 cents on the dollar for foreseeable damages at most U.S. reactors.
The Exelon Corporation said it may purchase as many as 40 Pebble Bed Modular Reactors (PBMRs) over the next decade, for use in the U.S. and for export. The PBMR has the unique feature of being particularly vulnerable to terrorist attack, since it has no containment structure.
Urenco, which apparently didn’t lose enough money to suit itself the last time it tried to build a uranium enrichment plant in the U.S., a debacle known as Louisiana Energy Services, in early December announced it will try again—with partners Duke Energy and Exelon—to build a new uranium enrichment plant in the U.S. An application to the NRC is expected as early as February 2002.
Even while halting for several months the nation’s largest (so far) shipment of high-level nuclear waste, from West Valley, NY to Idaho, due to terrorist and security concerns, the Department of Energy pressed ahead with plans to approve the proposed high-level nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. This is despite the fact that the U.S. General Accounting Office recommended that DOE hold off on its recommendation for several years, since the scientific work on the site has not been nearly completed, and despite the DOE’s last-minute rule change that acknowledges the Yucca Mountain site plays havoc with congressional intent and cannot be considered a geologic disposal site. Instead, the DOE now admits that burial in the mountain itself cannot possibly prevent radiation from leaking into the environment; DOE says the canisters it will build to store the waste will do the job instead. But under those parameters, the waste could be stored in the basement bowling lanes of the White House…..Who needs Yucca Mountain?
Make no mistake however. All of these developments, and more—which are reported in this issue—are not signs of a nuclear resurgence or the development of a new, mature, strong atomic power industry. Instead, they are signs of desperation, of grabbing for any straw that pops out, of a sense of panic that they must act now, or they never will be able to.
And, in fact, great changes do take a little time to sink in. The reality is that we now know, and it is dawning on the American people, as well as the people across the globe, that by building nuclear power plants and the fuel cycle facilities that support them, we have created hundreds of nuclear targets across our nation and across the globe. We have turned every two-bit terrorist group into a nuclear power aimed straight at ourselves. We now can not only concern ourselves with nuclear accidents, but with deliberate sabotage, terror and destruction, and there is only one way to end that, and that is by closing the reactors and their ancillary facilities as quickly and rationally as possible, and by acting to protect the radioactive waste, which cannot be safely moved in an era of terror, no matter that no one wants it where it is now. This is the simple reality.
No terrorist or enemy-state would target a wind farm, or a solar plant, or someone’s passive solar window blinds, nor an energy-efficient motor or refrigeration system. Nuclear power plants are unique targets: in their visibility, in their capacity to create terror, and in their ability to cause genuine destruction. That lesson is self-evident, even if it takes a little while to comprehend. But once it is genuinely understood, at least among the public, if not the industry-paid policymakers, the nuclear era will be, finally, in its inevitable waning moments. –Michael Mariotte, December 12, 2001