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#749 - Our Nuclear Achilles' Heel, 07-Aug-2002

OUR NUCLEAR ACHILLES' HEEL

After 60 years of experience with nuclear power and weapons, it now
seems clear that humans are unable to devise controls that work. Nuclear
is too complicated and unpredictable for reliable human control. Unlike
renewable sources of energy, nuclear is an unforgiving technology
because normal human lapses and errors can produce unexpected
consequences that are catastrophic and irreversible. Yet as a nation,
our tax dollars are still massively subsidizing the expansion of
nuclear.[1] Furthermore our taxes are subsidizing the deployment of even
newer technologies that are far more complicated than nuclear, less
predictable, and therefore likely to plague our children with endless
trouble, namely biotech and nanotech.[2]

Here we examine nuclear technology from the viewpoint of rogue weaponry.
This is the true Achilles' heel of nuclear technology, a fatal problem
for which there is no fix: so long as we are expanding nuclear
technology, we are increasing the likelihood that radioactive materials
will one day be spread across an American city.[3] When it happens, it
seems likely to permanently damage, if not end, our traditions of an
open society with democratic checks and balances.

Tom Ridge, the President's director of homeland security, was recently
asked what form of terrorism worried him the most: "He cupped his hands
prayerfully and pressed his fingertips to his lips. ' Nuclear,' he said
simply." [3, pg. 24]

U.S. regulatory officials have consistently failed to acknowledge the
dangers posed by nuclear materials as tools for terrorists. For example,
on September 12, 2001 -- one day AFTER the World Trade Center atrocities
-- the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ruled that citizen concerns
about plutonium fuel processing at Savannah River (in Aiken, S.C.) were
not valid because the complaining citizens (Georgians Against Nuclear
Energy) had failed to establish that "terrorist acts... fall within the
realm of 'reasonably foreseeable' events." [NY TIMES Mar. 25, 2002, pg.
A11.]

In 1982, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) ruled that owners
of nuclear plants do not have to design against such threats as kamikaze
airliner crashes because to do so would make nuclear electricity too
expensive to be competitive. "Reactors could not be effectively
protected against such attacks without turning them into virtually
impregnable fortresses at much higher cost," the NRC said.[4]

The U.S. has 103 operating nuclear power plants (plus 7 that are
closed), most of which are storing intensely-radioactive spent fuel in
40-foot-deep pools of boron-treated water to shield against radiation
and to keep the fuel from heating up, catching fire, and releasing
radioactivity. Unlike reactor cores, the spent fuel pools are not
covered by a concrete containment dome; they are covered only by a metal
building.

If the water were to drain out of a spent fuel pool, the fuel would be
exposed to a combination of air and steam, causing the zirconium outer
"cladding" of the fuel assemblies to catch fire and burn fiercely.[4]
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acknowledges that such a fire could
not be extinguished and could burn for days, releasing large amounts of
radioactivity.

Water could drain from a spent fuel pool in several ways -- leakage,
evaporation, siphoning, pumping, earthquake, reactor failure, accidental
or intentional drop of a fuel transport cask, explosion inside or
outside the pool building, or airplane impact.

The main concern in spent fuel is cesium-137, a highly-radioactive
element that enters food chains masquerading as potassium. The spent
fuel currently held in the U.S. contains 20 to 50 million Curies of
cesium-137. A single spent fuel pool contains more cesium-137 than was
released by all the atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the Northern
Hemisphere combined. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission acknowledges that
as much as 100% of the cesium-137 in spent fuel might be released by a
zirconium fire.

A spent fuel pool typically holds 5 to 10 times as much radioactivity as
the reactor core, and a zirconium fire would likely release more
radioactivity than a core meltdown and would probably be easier for a
disciplined group of suicidal terrorists to initiate. Draining the pool
is all it takes.

The Indian Point nuclear power plant, 35 miles north of New York City,
currently holds 1589 fuel assemblies in its spent fuel pool (compared to
386 fuel assemblies in the cores of its two operating reactors).[5] The
Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1982 estimated that a core meltdown at
Indian Point could cause 46,000 fatalities and 141,000 injuries. [NY
TIMES April 4, 2002, pg. A23.]

Many spent fuel pools were not designed to hold all the fuel assemblies
they presently hold. Spent fuel was supposed to be "reprocessed" at
plants like the one that contaminated West Valley, N.Y. (see REHN #748)
but the technology failed to materialize. In the 1982 Nuclear Waste
Policy Act Congress promised to take all private-sector spent fuel and
bury it in the ground somewhere by 1998, but it didn't happen. Current
plans call for a spent fuel mausoleum beneath Yucca Mountain, Nevada,
but it won't be ready before 2010 at the earliest and it, too, may never
materialize.[6; and NY TIMES Feb. 15, 2002, pg. A19.] Meanwhile more
spent fuel is being squeezed into existing pools each year.
Astonishingly, the nuclear industry is now planning to build 25 to 50
new nuclear power plants in the U.S. and the Bush administration has
announced that it will provide millions of tax dollars, plus relaxed
regulations, to help them do it.[1]

Nuclear reactors of course are not the only source of material for
creating radioactive havoc. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, its
nuclear weaponry fell under the control of various smaller governments,
the economy of Russia went into a tailspin, and many Russian nuclear
scientists and military weaponeers found themselves without jobs and
without a way to feed their families. [NY TIMES Nov. 2, 2001, pg. B4.]
As Russia lurched into the early phases of a capitalist economy, a black
market in nuclear materials and expertise quickly developed. The NEW
YORK TIMES MAGAZINE summarizes it this way: "Russia is a country with
sloppy accounting, a disgruntled military, an audacious black market and
indigenous terrorists."[3, pg. 26]

Russia has somewhere between 4,000 and 30,000 nuclear weapons -- no one
is sure of the true number, including the Russians. [3, pg. 27] Some of
these weapons have only crude safeguards against detonation: "setting
one off would be about as complicated as hot-wiring a car," says the NY
TIMES. [3, pg. 28] Furthermore, Russia has an additional 80 metric
tonnes of plutonium "stored under less than ideally secure
conditions."[NY TIMES Aug. 27, 2001, pg. A20.] Russia's stored plutonium
is enough to make 10,000 A-bombs, assuming it takes 17 pounds to make a
bomb. Some say it takes only 12.

The simplest raw material for an A-bomb would be about 110 pounds of
highly-enriched uranium. [3, pg. 29.] The world's total inventory of
weapons-grade uranium is at least 1300 metric tonnes -- enough to make
26,000 small but effective A-bombs. A crude A-bomb could be delivered in
a standard "conex" shipping container -- 2000 of which arrive in the
U.S. each hour, and only 2% of which are opened for inspection.[7; and
3, pg. 28]

Reflecting on the dangers of a crude "conex A-bomb," Eugene E. Habiger,
the four-star general who was in charge of America's nuclear arsenal
until 1998 and then ran nuclear anti-terror programs for the Department
of Energy, says, "How do you protect against that? You can't.... It's
not a matter of IF ; it's a matter of WHEN." [3, pg. 28; emphasis in the
original.]

The NEW YORK TIMES reported May 26, 2002, that a very small nuclear bomb
(1/15th the size of the Hiroshima weapon), set off in Times Square,
would immediately kill 20,000 people and would condemn another 250,000
to a painful death by fire and radiation sickness.[3, pg. 57] It is
difficult see how the U.S. could remain an open, democratic society
after such an event.

A bi-partisan U.S. commission on rogue weapons reported in 1999 that
"Russia has no reliable inventory of its fissile material," meaning
plutonium and enriched uranium.[7] The commission said it knew of at
least seven instances in which weapons-grade fissile material had been
stolen from Russian plants or storage sites between 1992 and 1999.[7; NY
TIMES Jul. 9, 1999, pg. A13.]

In 2001 the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that 376
incidents of cross-border radioactive smuggling occurred between 1993
and autumn 2001, including military, industrial and medical materials;
18 of those instances involved plutonium or enriched uranium. [NY TIMES
Nov. 2, 2001, pg. B4.] American intelligence officials say the scope of
smuggling remains uncertain but they strongly believe that "only a
fraction of shipments are intercepted." The TIMES adds, "The worries are
heightened by the slackness of border controls and the economic
instability that has left customs officials vulnerable to bribes."[NY
TIMES Sep. 11, 2001, pgs. A1, A8]

Pakistan -- an impoverished, politically unstable nation -- has
assembled about 20 nuclear bombs (NY TIMES Nov. 2, 2001, pg. B4), which
were "built almost entirely through black markets and industrial
espionage," according to the NY TIMES [3, pg. 26].

North Korea -- another deeply impoversished, unstable nation -- is now
reported to have manufactured two nuclear bombs and to have acquired
enough plutonium to manufacture 10 more, making it the world's 9th known
nuclear power. North Korea is one of three countries that Mr. Bush has
labeled the "axis of evil." Perhaps hoping to appease the North Koreans,
the Bush Administration has begun building a new nuclear power plant in
North Korea. [NY TIMES Aug. 8, 2002, pg. A9.]

For terrorists, an easier alternative to an actual A-bomb would be a
simple but terrifying "dirty bomb" made by wrapping "high explosive"
around some radioactive waste -- thus spreading radioactivity downwind.
High explosive is fuel oil and ammonium nitrate fertilizer -- the
ingredients Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Murrah Building in
Oklahoma City April 19, 1995. [NY TIMES Dec. 2, 1997, pg. A22.] Even if
no one were killed immediately, such a "dirty bomb" detonated in a city
could create extraordinary panic and could contaminate a huge area at
great cost. According to the Federation of American Scientists, a single
foot-long pencil of radioactive cobalt-60 from a food irradiation plant,
plus 10 pounds of TNT, detonated in lower Manhattan could contaminate
large parts of three states. Most of Manhattan could be as contaminated
as the area around the Chernobyl nuclear plant. The economic and
psychological damage would be enormous. [3, pg. 51]

What is the answer? We cannot prevent all terrorism (though reducing our
military-industrial intrusions into the Middle East to protect "our" oil
would help, after we seriously commit to reducing our dependence on
oil). More immediately, we could stop promoting and subsidizing
unnecessary and uncontrollable nuclear technologies such as nuclear
power plants, food irradiators, and nuclear bombs. As it is, the nuclear
industry -- with massive subsidies from U.S. taxpayers -- is greasing
the skids for the next level of domestic terror -- a Timothy
McVeigh-type bomb blasting a spent fuel truck into smithereens in
Chicago, or a teacup of cobalt-60 from a food irradiation plant atomized
by a few sticks of dynamite in downtown Atlanta or Minneapolis or
Washington, D.C.

The looming fight to stop the government-subsidized "renaissance" of
nuclear technology[1] will be one of the most important
environment-and-health fights of the 21st century. Environmental justice
and anti-nuclear activists, unite!

==============

[1] http://www.nei.org/documents/Speech_Abraham_2-14-02.pdf and
http://www.nei.org/documents/Vision2020_Folder.pdf and
http://www.nuclear-gen.com/.

[2] http://www.rafi.org/text/txt_search.asp?type=communique; see issue
#76.

[3] Bill Keller, "Nuclear Nightmares; Experts on terrorism and
proliferation agree on one thing: Sooner or later, an attack will happen
here," NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE May 26, 2002, pgs. 22-29, 51-57. Keller
is a senior writer for the NY TIMES.

[4] Reported by Robert Alvarez, "What About the Spent Fuel?" BULLETIN OF
THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS Vol. 58, No. 1 (Jan./Feb 2002), pgs. 45-47.
Available at:
http://www.thebulletin.org/-issues/-2002/jf02/jf02alvarez.html.

[5] Congressman Edward J. Markey, "Security Gap: A Hard Look at the Soft
Spots in Our Civilian Nuclear Reactor Security." Report published March
25, 2002. Available at:
http://www.house.gov/markey/iss_nuclear_rep020325.pdf.

[6] U.S. Government Acounting Office (GAO), NUCLEAR WASTE: TECHNICAL,
SCHEDULE AND COST UNCERTAINTIES OF THE YUCCA MOUNTAIN REPOSITORY PROJECT
(Washington, D.C.: GAO, Dec., 2001.] GAO-02-191;
http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d02191.pdf.

[7] http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/program/deutch/