FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE March 16, 2005
Contacts: Jim Warren, NC WARN 919-416-5077,
David Lochbaum, Union of Concerned Scientists 202-223-6133
Coalition Decries Withholding of Report Damaging to Nuclear Industry
Groups, Security Experts Seek Meeting With Agency Heads
Washington, DC – The Nuclear Security Coalition (NSC), an alliance of 47 grassroots and public interest groups, charged today that federal bureaucrats are jeopardizing public safety by blocking release of a science panel’s report that is damaging to the nuclear power industry. The NSC said the report confirms the urgent need to lower the density of pools packed with highly irradiated fuel rods at U.S. power plants, and that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is stalling its release to protect the nuclear industry’s efforts to revive nuclear power in the United States.
The urgency of taking action was highlighted this week by the disclosure of a recent report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security, which found “the largely unregulated” area of general aviation remains particularly vulnerable. An NRC report from October 2000 determined the “spent” fuel pools in certain reactor designs are especially prone to damage from a plane crash.
Because spent fuel pools are considered among the highest impact targets for terrorism in the U.S., in late 2003 Congress ordered the National Academy of Sciences to study current storage methods for commercial spent nuclear fuel – and options to reduce risks. A classified version of the report was completed last summer; insiders say it confirms concerns that enormous radioactive fires could result if waste pools were attacked.
But NRC has repeatedly sought revisions to a still-unreleased public version of the NAS study, citing “security.” In a letter sent to the Academy today, the Coalition pointed to NRC’s contradictions. “Clearly from NRC’s response, we conclude that spent fuel pools are not the ‘well-engineered’ and ‘robust’ structures as advertised – otherwise NRC would not be worried about NAS’ report becoming public,” said Mary Lampert of Pilgrim Watch in Massachusetts today. “The Academy must have gotten the ‘wrong answer.’ ”
Due to long-running exasperation toward the agency, the Coalition sent a letter
to NRC today asking for a meeting directly with the five NRC Commissioners.
In part, the citizens want action on a petition filed with the NRC in August 2004 urging priority measures at 32 plants where spent fuel pools are located high inside buildings and surrounded only by thin roofs and walls. Federal and state legislators as well as Attorneys General have sent letters of support for the petition to the Commission.
There is growing national pressure on the NRC to lower the risk of attack on “spent” fuel pools, which contain far more radioactivity than do reactors, and are vulnerable to a variety of attacks by air or ground intruders.
In January, attorneys general from New York, California, Massachusetts and five other states pressed the NRC to increase plant protections, warning of “possibly unimaginable nuclear catastrophes” and emphasizing the need “to reflect the realities of 2005…terrorists may attack by air or water and in numbers greater than four.” That reference stems from NRC’s continued reliance on plant defenses designed against only small, land-based teams of attackers.
Dr. Gordon Thompson, a specialist on nuclear safety, said today, “Added to our concern about the vulnerability of civilian nuclear facilities to attack is a growing concern that the NRC cannot be relied upon to protect the citizens of the United States from this grave threat.”
The coalition, comprised of citizen groups from coast to coast, charged that the withholding of science panel’s report is designed to protect the nuclear industry at a most sensitive time. The long-declining industry is pouring huge sums into a publicity offensive touting new, experimental reactors as the solution to global warming, and seeking taxpayer funding for new nuclear plants as part of the Bush administration’s energy bill.
The industry’s revival hinges on its ability to maintain a public misperception that the high-level waste issue is solved. However, last month, plans for a national waste dump at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain were set back five more years, to 2015. Many observers – including industry officials – believe the long-delayed and multi-billion dollar project is doomed.
Regardless of whether a dump at Yucca Mountain ever opens, spent fuel will be stored at U.S. plants for decades. Hence, hardening spent fuel against attack – instead of keeping it in high-density pools – is key to alleviating the security crisis at reactors; it is also a quasi-permanent storage location for mounting quantities of high level waste. Increasing evidence that nuclear plants are terrorist targets, and warnings by non-governmental counter-terrorism experts that the U.S. will again be attacked, make increased plant security a priority.
In a December 3 letter, the NRC requested that the National Academy spend “more time” on the study – in other words, delay issuing any report and subsequent required remedial action.
“NRC gives protecting fuel pools low priority, but for reactor communities living with a terrorist target in their midst, its actions are irresponsible. This argument between NAS and NRC is putting our communities in harm’s way unnecessarily,” said Deb Katz, executive director of Citizens Awareness Network. “NRC must do more to protect our communities since it is our communities that will suffer the consequences of agency inaction if a reactor fuel pool is attacked.”
Jim Warren of NC WARN added, “The NRC has shown itself time and time again to be a lapdog of the industry and that is precisely why Congress directed NAS, and not the NRC, to perform the analysis. We ask that NAS ignore the NRC and issue the report as required by Congress.”
See letter to NAS at: http://www.citizen.org/documents/NAS3-15-05.pdf
See letter to NRC at: http://www.citizen.org/documents/NRC3-16-05.pdf