The U.S. Department of Energy is facing attacks on two fronts in federal courts over the disposal of spent nuclear fuel. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erika Johnson reports:
The U.S. Department of Energy is facing attacks on two fronts in federal courts over the disposal
of spent nuclear fuel. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erika Johnson reports:
Dozens of nuclear power companies are suing the federal government for nearly 50-billion
dollars. The power companies allege the Department Of Energy violated a contract with them.
The companies have been paying the government to develop a nuclear waste storage site at Yucca
Mountain in Nevada. Under the contract, starting in 1998, the Department of Energy was
supposed to dispose of this spent nuclear fuel from the plants. But that hasn’t happened, so the
utilities want millions of dollars each for damages to cover the costs of storing the waste on-site.
Craig Nesbit is Director of Communications for Exelon Nuclear.
“What’s at stake is simply the costs of building the facilities to store it. The Department of
Energy’s problem is that it doesn’t have anywhere to put it right now. That’s what Yucca
Mountain is for, and Yucca Mountain has not been fully developed.”
But the federal government’s plan to store the nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain has been blocked
by the state of Nevada in courts. The cases are expected to last up to several years.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erika Johnson.
The Braidwood nuclear power plant is
50 miles from Chicago. Industry, government, and
environmental groups are trying to determine what kinds
of risks the plants might face from terrorist attacks.
After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there have been all kinds of speculation about the next target. One of the worst case scenarios conjured up is crashing a jet into a nuclear power plant. Since September 11th, the nuclear power industry and regulators have been trying to determine what other kinds of threats the plants might face. However, progress has been slow. No one seems sure how far to take the security issue. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon,
there have been all kinds of speculation about the next target. One of
the worst case scenarios conjured up is crashing a jet into a nuclear
power plant. Since September 11th, the nuclear power industry and
regulators have been trying to determine what other kinds of threats
the plants might face. However, progress has been slow. No one seems
sure how far to take the security issue. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:
The idea of a radioactive release from a nuclear power plant is chilling.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has always required plant
operators to keep security tight and the plant owners generally thought
of the security requirements as a necessary evil… a costly regulatory
requirement. That changed on September 11th.
Jack Skolds is the President of Exelon Nuclear, which operates 17
reactors in the U.S. He says the nuclear power industry’s opinions
about security have changed. Now, it’s seen as not just a regulatory
requirement, but as absolutely essential for the safety of the plants.
“And I didn’t believe this necessarily before September 11th.
I believe there are people out there who want to inflict some kind of
harm to nuclear power plants somewhere in the world. And one of those
plants might be one of ours. So, we take this very seriously and we’re
going to do everything that we need to do to protect the security of the
Exelon, just as other nuclear power plant operators, has increased
spending on security by about 25 percent. Security guards are better
armed. There are more inspections of people and cars going in and out
of plants. Barricades have been put up. But, Skolds concedes that
nuclear power plants can’t defend against everything.
“I wouldn’t call anything impenetrable. I think that would be a stretch.
But, I would tell you I know of no other civilian industry
that has as high a degree of security as the nuclear power industry
But no one is testing that security. The government used to conduct
mock attacks – so-called force-on-force tests – against plants to test
security. Since September 11th, there have been no force-on-force drills.
The government says it’s still trying to figure out what kind of threats a
group of terrorist might present. So, the nuclear power plants are
waiting. They’re waiting for the government to come up with likely
terrorism scenarios and strategies to defend against them. Once that’s
complete, then there will likely be a discussion about who pays for
those defenses, the nuclear power industry or the government.
David Lochbaum is the nuclear safety engineer for the Union of
Concerned Scientists. He says that if there’s an attack against a plant,
the nuclear power industry and government need to be able to tell the
public that they did everything they could to prevent it. The Union of
Concerned Scientists says that should start with bringing back
force-on-force drills… and then focus on the possibility of insider
sabotage by giving lie detector tests to nuclear power plant employees.
But, those things aren’t happening…
“So, we think there are shortfalls that would prevent officials from reassuring the American public that everything that can reasonably be done has been done.”
Lochbaum adds that the government needs to work faster to develop
likely attack scenarios and defenses so that the nuclear power plants
know the best ways to beef up security.
The power plants are not the only ones waiting for those scenarios.
Agencies responsible for evacuating areas around a plant are also
waiting. Thomas Ortciger is the Director of the Illinois Department of
Nuclear Safety. Illinois has more reactors than any other state. He says
while his staff is trying to come up with plans to react to the most likely
situations and looking for federal government guidance… they’re
getting pressure to do something… or , actually, everything… and do it
“There are various outside groups, particularly “anti-” groups that have developed scenarios that are absolutely bizzare. I mean, there are so many things that
would have to happen at a plant. I mean, this is hysteria at its best. You know,
cut it out guys. Let’s talk in real terms. Let’s try to help one another make this thing work.”
Ortciger says the evacuation plans already in place appear to be enough, but it’s difficult to know. These plans weren’t designed with terrorist attacks in mind.
“What we need to see is whether or not there are any credible scenarios where the time we believe we have to implement an evacuation would be shortened. But, we have not seen a credible argument for that yet.”
And so state and local emergency agencies and the nuclear industry are
all waiting for the same thing: information. Exelon Nuclear’s Jack
Skolds says he doesn’t know where or how or even if they should
increase security further.
“So, whether we have enough or not, I can’t answer because
we haven’t reached a conclusion yet on what the perceived threat is.”
Recent studies by the National Research Council, the Electric Power
Research Institute, the Nuclear Energy Institute and the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission all look at perceived threats, especially the
threat of a jet crash into the reactor containment building. The studies
only look at what kind of damage such a crash would likely cause. They
agree it would cause a lot of disruption, but probably would not cause a
melt down. But none of the studies looks at what to do to stop an air
David Lochbaum at the Union of Concerned Scientists says that’s the
problem. Study and planning to defend against a terrorist attack are
just going too slowly.
“Things aren’t looking real good that we’re going to be able to beat the
next terrorist attack. We’re still trying to figure out where the lines are
drawn, who does what, who pays for the problems. We haven’t responded
with a lot of urgency to this challenge.”
Given that the worst case scenario in the back of every expert’s mind is
something like the Chernobyl plant radioactive release. A similar
release from a nuclear power plant such as Exelon’s Braidwood plant,
just 50 miles from Chicago is haunting. Lochbaum says it’s clear that
the challenge of securing nuclear power plants from a terrorist attack
is significant and should be urgent. But the studies take time… and it
could be one to three years before defense plans are outlined.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.