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Lead Story: Tempting targets
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Editor’s Note: As part of our mission to deliver quality reporting on local environmental issues, we present the third and final installment of Kathleen Graham’s series on the resurgence of the nuclear power industry in Georgia. The first, “Atomic Spring,” was an overview of the current situation; the second, “Endless power, endless cost,” dealt with the difficult economics of a move toward more nuclear energy; and this piece deals with safety and security issues.


After the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, fears of strikes against other similarly unconventional targets flourished. Believing at the time that nuclear power plants made likely targets, the federal government spent over $1 billion beefing up security measures at plants nationwide.

In February 2005, FBI director Robert Mueller testified before the Senate Committee on Intelligence about concerns of attacks at various sites in the U.S., specifically identifying nuclear power plants as vulnerable.

In his address before the Senate, Mueller stated, “America is awash in desirable targets—those that are symbolic like the U.S. Capitol and the White House—as well as the many infrastructure targets, like nuclear power plants, mass transit systems, bridges and tunnels, shipping and port facilities, financial centers, and airports.”

Mueller claimed terrorist groups such as Al Qa’ida had already recognized, and continue to recognize, nuclear facilities as potential targets.

While nuclear power plants may or may not be attainable targets for terrorists, their ability to generate a steady flow of electricity without pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has made them attractive to governments and utility companies.

However, environmental and public interest groups argue that the costs (not just economic) far outweigh the benefits afforded by nuclear power, and in the event of an accident or attack, the impact to the economy, to the environment and to us would be significant.

Beth Thomas of Southern Nuclear Operating Company maintains today’s nuclear power plants are safe and equipped with the tools and manpower needed to safely manage an attack or accident.

“Prior to September 11, 2001, nuclear power plants were the most secure facilities of any industrial site in the nation,” says Thomas. “Since 9/11 the nuclear industry has taken a number of steps to reinforce, enhance and increase our security measures.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees the operation and licensing of nuclear power plants around the country, holds nuclear plants to the highest standards, according to Thomas.

“Southern Company has been operating nuclear energy plants safely and securely for more than 25 years,” Thomas insists. “They operate safely every day.”

In August of 2006, Southern Company applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for an Early Site Permit (ESP) at Plant Vogtle near Waynesboro, Georgia. If granted, an ESP would allow Southern Company the opportunity to build additional nuclear reactors at Plant Vogtle.

Several environmental and public interest groups filed a petition opposing Southern Company’s ESP. The groups raised several concerns, one of them being Southern Company’s failure to address the environmental impacts of possible intentional attacks.

While the NRC disregarded that particular contention, Sara Barczak, Safe Energy director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), maintains it’s worth bearing in mind. “Unfortunately, I think by nature, we react to a crisis, versus ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’” says Barczak.

In the event of an attack or accident at a nuclear facility anywhere in the world, Barczak worries that enthusiasm for nuclear power could wane and prove costly to the overall industry.

“Even if you don’t have a terrorist attack, if you have an accident tomorrow, that’s going to really change the public receptivity of this technology,” Barczak insists. “When you’re looking at the big picture, do you sink your money into technologies that just by human error or some madman attack could freeze the global industry?”

Some of Barczak’s concern stems from the poor rating bestowed on many U.S. plants by the NRC regarding their lack of preparedness for a terrorist attack. In 1991, the NRC began testing response to mock attacks. They identified significant weaknesses in 46 percent of U.S. nuclear plants between 1991-2001.  Had the attacks been real, the result would have led to damage to the reactor core and the likely release of radiation.

According to Nolan Hertel, professor of Nuclear and Radiological Engineering at Georgia Tech, much of the public fear regarding the nuclear industry is unwarranted.

“The controversy is principally driven by an incomplete understanding of the science and technology associated with nuclear technology,” explains Hertel, “as well as the unfounded perception that technology for the disposal of high-level radioactive waste is not mature. There is often the misguided perception that nuclear weapons and power reactors are directly linked.”

Hertel’s assurance in the safety and security of nuclear power plants remains high, especially since 9/11.

“It’s in the best interest of the industry for the nuclear power generators to ensure the protection of their plants,” he contends. “In recent visits to a nuclear power plant, I was quite impressed by the redundant security measures that are not readily visible to the casual visitor inside the plant.”

Sara Barczak expresses less confidence than Hertel and the utility companies.

“The Union of Concerned Scientists has a very extensive nuclear oversight program, and they’re not an organization that is for or against nuclear,” explains Barczak. “They recently came out with a paper that said they don’t believe the current fleet of nuclear facilities is safe or operated safely.”

According to its website, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) argues the safety record of nuclear power plants is far from clean, stating the UCS “continues to find and expose safety problems at individual plants, in industry standards, and in the failure of regulators to take effective action.”

The exposure has led to the upgrading of safety regulations, the shutting down of unsafe plants, and modifications to emergency procedures. But this supervision and regulation may be more the exception than the rule in other parts of the world, and Barczak is concerned that a global nuclear industry might not be as thoroughly managed.

“So you want nuclear reactors in Mali or Iran?” she asks. “That gets into the argument I think a lot of environmentalists, a lot of people in general, don’t talk about, which is this bigger global picture of nuclear proliferation. We see the link here between spreading nuclear technologies around the world, and how that will logically increase the spread of nuclear material across the globe and into the wrong hands.”

Nolan Hertel insists the industry is well-monitored, though he encourages broadening the authority of international agencies like the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) to more effectively monitor the nuclear programs of other countries and ensure their peaceful agendas.

In any case, Hertel believes something like a covert nuclear weapons program is not financially feasible for most developing countries.

“You will find that the safeguarding of nuclear materials is being addressed as a principal component design of the new fuel cycles and plant designs,” explains Hertel. “Furthermore, the decision for a state to pursue a nuclear weapons program is a difficult and costly one. Many developing countries simply would not have a large enough GDP to pay for such a program.”

Still, obstacles and economics have scarcely kept other countries from trying (Iran) and/or from succeeding (North Korea) to build a nuclear program, whether for peaceful or violent purposes. “North Korea did have a nuclear weapon, and they may have more,” says Hertel. “However, they’ve pursued such a path at great expense to their nation and their people.”

And what about countries like Iran, which insist on the peaceful nature of their nuclear programs but raise suspicions by refusing international inspections?

“It is not simple to hide a weapons program, but one could be hidden,” says Hertel, adding that more invasive inspections and monitoring of programs should be allowed.

“Then it would be really difficult to hide such a program under the cover of a civilian program,” he says. “I think Iran is a case in point here; they limit access to their program. One might do well to give the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) even more authority to inspect nuclear programs throughout the world, and it’s likely this will be built into the global nuclear economy as it grows.”

Despite opposition to the nuclear industry, Hertel maintains nuclear energy must remain a part of the mix of energy resources.

“Diversification is desirable,” he says. “Nuclear power has to be part of the mix of energy sources if we are to meet the future base load energy needs of the world without increasing greenhouse gas emissions.”

SACE and others argue there are alternatives. Leadership, and perhaps some of the heavy subsidies granted to industries like nuclear, can help realize those alternatives.

“We have enough time to think about this and figure it out correctly before we go down this road,” says Barczak. “Once we sink our money into nuclear, we’re stuck.” 

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