Over and over again throughout the dogged 70s, when I began reporting on all things nuclear, intervenors at licensing hearings would pipe up that an airplane might crash into a nuclear reactor. And over and over again, the electric utility applying for the reactor license would pooh pooh this scenario as “not credible.” But now, Allah Mia, it was suddenly not not credible; to the contrary it was very credible indeed. It had a beard, baggy pants and a funny hat—and there were 150 or so of them, nuclear kamikazes, who were said to be just panting to ram a commercial airliner into a nuclear facility.

After September 11, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) figuratively broke down and blubbered in public. Headquartered in Vienna, IAEA is a UN satellite agency that unremittingly promotes the sale of nuclear power reactors (and hence nuclear weapons) outside the United States, and which has never, for as long as I can remember, been known to find the slightest defect in its perfectly swell product. Maybe the televised World Trade Center crater reminded the Japanese delegate of Hiroshima. Whatever it was, he came right out and said that a nuclear power reactor was definitely not designed to take a direct hit from a commercial jet plane loaded with fuel and going 500 miles an hour and that nuclear reactors—including the 53 in his homeland—are, frankly, indefensible.

President Bush retorted that the United States would shoot down a hijacked passenger plane before it could crash into a reactor. He created a new post: Homeland Security Director (Love that job title!), in which he plunked an old friend, decorated war hero and former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge. Mr. Ridge promptly bragged, during an interview with Tom Brokaw, that he would be the one making The Call—The Call, that is to the President, to advise him that a passenger jet was approaching a nuclear plant and needed to be shot down. But in a delicious op-ed piece, Frank Rich of The New York Times pointed out that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s codified chain of command did not include the Homeland Director.

Since I live under the volcano, as it were—downwind of Indian Point, the nuclear plant on the Hudson that is owned and operated by Entergy Corporation, the second-largest of America’s kinky new limited-liability nuclear power plant chains, I spend a lot of time thinking about these things.

I started to come up with a list of questions. First, there was some basic stuff that I assume could be taken care of in short order, such as the telephone call problem. Who makes the call? But there were other knotty issues, starting with the dimensions of the no-fly zones around the reactors. On the one hand, you want the nukes to have all the no-fly space they can get; on the other hand, a decrease in overall available air space increases the probability of collisions.

Then again, since a jumbo jet takes one minute to get from the no-fly perimeter to the targeted nuclear site, would there be enough time for the Homeland Director or the U.S. Air Force, or whoever, to reach the President and then relay his order to the artillery assigned to shoot the plane down? And just what type of artillery might this be? Should we follow the example of France, which has ringed its nuclear reactors with anti-aircraft guns? Or, since these are awkward to move around, might it not be less cumbersome to equip gunners with shoulder-fired missiles? (In a jollier era, these were known as “bazookas.”)

What about sending up fighter planes? These could fly over the reactors 24 hours a day in shifts, in order to allow for refueling and maintenance. To save wear and tear on the planes and cut down on take-off time, why not build airstrips near the plant and have the pilots sit in the cockpits ready to take off?

Just to add to this long list of things to think about, we should point out that it’s not just the condom-like containment shell that is the only vulnerable target on a nuclear site. A jetliner crash can take out a pump that hauls anti-meltdown coolant from an adjacent river, lake or ocean. It can bust a transmission line that channels electricity to power the reactor’s essential safety systems. It can hit the building where they store the “spent” or used fuel rods that have decayed down to the most intensely radioactive, long-lived elements, e.g., Plutonium (Pu) and Cesium, (C-137). We will also need to be on guard for threats by water, and to be ready to mow down Uzbeks, or who might try to raft across the rivers and lakes from which the plants draw their cooling water.

Of course, we should also consider those threats by land, some of which have already occurred. In February 1993, Pierce Nye, 31, of Bethel, Pennsylvania, said by his niece to have been recently discharged from a mental hospital as “cured,” managed to drive his mother’s Plymouth station wagon through an unguarded gate at Three Mile Island (and bust through the door of the turbine building (site of the infamous 1979 “incident;” one reactor is still operating). He exited the car and descended a ladder into the deep dark of the condenser building. There, nuts or not nuts, he managed to elude an intensive four-hour local and state police manhunt.

Transmission lines that have been cut, workers have attempted or committed suicide, and one worker went around saying he was so mad that he wanted to kill people. He slept in a coffin. There was also a worker who left his job with a nuclear plant to take up a new career as a serial killer. At Entergy’s plant in Millstone, Connecticut, security documents have been stolen along with a fuel rod.

It certainly did give one something to think about, especially after reading that an alarming number of plants were flunking their Operational Safeguards Response Evaluations. OSRE, which the industry has been trying to eliminate (in favor of “self-evaluation”), is a fun exercise involving Nuclear Regulatory Commission teams composed of three mock terrorists, ideally wearing four-inch beards, plus one insider, who, after having been disguised for several years as Homer Simpson, has managed to figure out where the disaster button is.

The intruders, the mole and the plant security guards pack toy pistols that signal a lethal hit by means of a red light. OSRE Comandante David Orrick, a former U.S. Navy SEAL captain, insists that these exercises are a sure way to train security personnel. So far the guards have failed 40 percent of the simulated attacks. (“We ate ’em alive,” a mock terrorist told U.S. News and World Report).

The nuclear industry had supposed that with the new administration, happy days were here again. In May of this year, the National Energy Policy Group headed by Vice President Cheney had recommended an expansion of the nuclear power program. But there were complaints in Congress that the group had met “behind closed doors” in a “highly secretive manner.”

The ever-vigilant Government Accounting Office requested that Cheney reveal who was present and what transpired at the secret meetings. When Cheney failed to comply, the GAO threatened a lawsuit, which would have been the first time in U.S. history that that the GAO went after such a such a high-ranking federal target. And then after September 11, the GAO put the lawsuit on hold, preferring to spend its time and resources on national security. And the Vice President seemed to fall off the radar screen, although a reliable Washington source tells me that Cheney was on an extended duck shoot in Pierre, South Dakota—Siberia with a human face.

With the demise of Enron—a major player at those secret meetings—we could imagine that a few questions of the Vice President might be in order right now. What’s more, there might be a vacancy coming up on the National Energy Group, and it might be time for our friends in Washington to think about something in the way of policy options other than just slip sliding the re-authorization of the Price-Anderson Act. (The Price-Anderson Act dates back 50 years. In effect it’s a built-in, federally subsidized insurance program for the nuclear industry that limits the liability of a plant in the event that “an accident” ever occurs. The weasels in the House pushed the re-authorization through the day after Thanksgiving, when it was guaranteed to receive no attention. The Senate has not yet voted on Price-Anderson.)

Well, we are indeed in the holiday season. Time for New Year’s resolutions. Maybe someone will finally realize what the Japanese delegate to the IAEC was saying in a roundabout way. The plants are indefensible. It might be time to finally consider the proposal put forth by Bob Alvarez, former assistant to the Secretary of Energy during the Clinton administration. While at the DOE, he helped to obtain the first compensation ever given to governmental radiation victims, thereby wedging a foot in the door for thousands of victims, workers in private facilities, veterans of atomic bomb tests and people who live near nuclear power reactors. His alternative proposal for the nuclear plants is to shut them down, encase the spent fuel pools and the reactors themselves in bermed concrete and steel sarcophagi—then replace them with conservation, solar energy and windmills.

Of course, that would require a president with the desire to become something more than a petty politician—to become, perhaps, a statesman in the world of all living things.

Anna Mayo reported on the nuclear industry and other issues for The Village Voice for over 20 years.

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Published at 12:00 am CST