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Jewish World Review Jan. 17, 2002 / 4 Shevat, 5762

Martin Gross

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Consumer Reports

Can we stop a nuclear plant attack? -- HOMELAND SECURITY DIRECTOR Tom Ridge has warned the nation to be on special alert through March.

What is he most concerned about? Naturally, we are all worried about airline security.

Since most cockpits are now locked (except when the pilot has to use the restroom), it is more difficult for terrorists to use commercial airliners as bombs.

But the worst threat to our mass safety, and possibly what Ridge is warning us about, is a nuclear attack. Let us assume (we hope) that terrorists do not have a nuclear suitcase bomb. What then faces us with dire consequences?

It is the dirty nuclear device and/or radiation terror, which can kill thousands, perhaps millions. Terrorists might be able to explode nuclear material with conventional explosives, sending deadly radiation into the air.

But a simpler, equally deadly target awaits them throughout America -- our 103 nuclear power plants in 32 states.

Are they well-protected? Can terrorists seize control of one or more plants? Surely, the U.S. Army, or the Marines, or the FBI, or some government agency is guarding these vulnerable operations.

No, not really. Though it seems inconceivable after Sept. 11, the government is still not attuned to the so-called war. Most nuclear plants have no such protection. France has assigned its army, along with anti-aircraft weapons, to its atomic plants for proper protection. But not here.

"It is the policy of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission," a spokesperson for the federal group that oversees the plants stated when interviewed, "to leave the security of our nuclear power plants to the private utilities that run them."

What? Yes, most of the plants have only private cops between us and death. These utilities claim that they have demonstrated that they are well-protected. However, reports of mock attacks involving only three armed terrorists with a four-wheel-drive vehicle, aided by one person inside the plants, showed poor performance by defenders almost half the time. In 1993, a car broke through the gates of Three Mile Island and the occupant entered a building claiming to have a bomb. Fortunately, he was mentally ill and not a Muslim terrorist.

What if there were more than three terrorists and they were heavily armed? Remember that the Sept. 11 attack involved 19 terrorists. According to a recent article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a nuclear watch group called the Committee to Bridge the Gap -- admittedly an advocacy group -- point out that a coordinated terrorist attack would probably overwhelm the private police. They also say that many plants are on lakes or rivers and accessible by boats. And none of the plants have anti-aircraft protection. Until the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the plants were not even required to protect against a truck bomb.

Once they seize the plant, trained terrorists could trigger a meltdown, creating another Chernobyl.

What is missing, of course, is for us to federalize the security. We need true military personnel armed with heavy weapons, and not private utility cops, to protect us against the massive death and near-permanent contamination that would follow a meltdown.

What has happened since Sept. 11? Surely the governors of America have sent the National Guard to protect the plants, perhaps with tanks and anti-aircraft to prevent a land invasion by terrorists or attack by a large bomb-laden plane, which could pierce the dome and release deadly radiation.

Hardly. Some localities have assigned their own police and sheriffs to guard the plants. But this is insufficient, and towns are complaining that they are not being reimbursed for the heavy costs.

How many governors have acted to provide extra protection? Reports from nuclear information groups indicate that only 13 out of 32 states involved have sent in the National Guard or the State Police. This may still be insufficient, but the remaining 19 states are only relying on private cops.

The present situation is not only ludicrous, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is standing in the way. When Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, chairman of the Transportation and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee, introduced a bill to federalize nuclear security, the NRC wrote back this November that all was fine and no more help was needed. Thus far, because of the NRC's reluctance and their desire to protect the pocketbook of the utilities that pay the security bill, nothing significant has been done to secure the plants properly against determined suicide terrorists.

It is ridiculous to rely on a civilian agency and private utilities to protect us against mass death. What is need is legislation that goes even beyond Reid's federalization. Like France, we need to put atomic power plant safety in the hands of the U.S. Army. That would require only 2,000 well-armed soldiers, with tanks and anti-aircraft guns, to ensure that millions of Americans will not die in a nuclear holocaust. Nothing less will do. And it needs to be done immediately, and not on slow Washington time.

Tom Ridge continues to warn us of upcoming danger. Perhaps he should earn his title and do something concrete about the situation. Instead of warning us, who are powerless, he should warn the president and the Congress to act now.

A terrorist raid on our nuclear power plants would make Sept.11 seem like a modest catastrophe.

Comment on JWR contributor Martin Gross' column by clicking here.


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© 2001, Creators Syndicate