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Jewish World Review May 23, 2002 / 12 Sivan, 5762

Martin Gross

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Consumer Reports

Second warning | We are the midst of the blame game regarding Sept. 11. Was it the fault of President Clinton, under whose watch the first World Trade Center bombing by Al Qaeda took place in 1993? He was still in the Oval Office in 1999, when his National Intelligence Council predicted a terrorist strike using a commercial jet as missiles. Or was it the fault of President Bush, who should have known all this, and who had been in office eight months before Osama, bin Laden destroyed the World Trade Center?

In the final analysis, we will probably learn that America's many disparate intelligence services are not integrated enough to accurately alert our politicians in time.

But while we will ponder what went wrong in September, we are setting ourselves up for another potential disaster that requires little intelligence work to decipher. It is current, it is obvious, and it is frightening in the extent of damage and death it can inflict. And we know in advance who is to blame.

In this case, the politician at serious fault is Richard A. Meserve, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), who has left our 104 nuclear power plants virtually undefended against a concerted attack by well-trained terrorists. Not only has he turned our nuclear survival over to a handful of underpaid private utility guards, but he has strongly resisted all attempts to improve security, including federalizing the defenses. It is a truly ludicrous and frightening situation.

A successful attack on just one nuclear power plant, Indian Point in Westchester County, N.Y., could release enough radiation to kill and maim millions. The two reactors are only 27 miles from New York City. Some 20 million people live in three states -- New York, New Jersey and Connecticut -- within 50 miles of the atomic plant. An attack by Al Qaeda terrorists could result in the release of a radioactive cloud that would kill and cause cancer in millions, while creating a trillion dollars in damages that would cripple the nation's economy.

Perhaps even more sinister is that, according to David Lockbaum, a nuclear reactor engineer who has worked at some 20 atomic plants as a consultant for the NRC, the Cesium in the radioactive cloud would make the ground unihabitable for 100 years -- which is absolutely unthinkable.

Lockbaum now works for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a liberal environmental lobby group. Unlike several of his colleagues, he doesn't want to shut down the plants, but he is shocked by the lack of security. Meanwhile, our mainstream politicians and groups, both Republicans and Democrats, are scrupulously avoiding the threat, placing politics above survival.

The first step in airline security was to federalize the process, which has yet to happen in nuclear power security. The result is that all that stands between us and radiation death and cancer are a handful of often-older private guards from Wackenhut, Burns and Pinkerton, the same people who often fail to protect our banks and armored cars. But Meserve, an obstinate bureaucrat, refuses to change the present inane system.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has submitted a bill, the Nuclear Security Act of 2001, to federalize security at the nuclear plants. But Meserve is opposed, and the bill lies fallow in committee. The plant defenses are based on what the NRC calls a "Design Basis Threat," one in which they envision a weak attack by "several persons" (reported to be three), carrying explosives, armed with hand-held guns and equipped with one 4-wheel-drive vehicle, all aided by one plant insider. The defenders, reported to be about eight private cops, are supposed to stop this.

Of course, hardened professional terrorists would use more men, have several vehicles and be equipped with heavy machine guns, the latest explosives, mortars, grenade launchers and ground-to-ground missiles.

"The security at our atomic plants is very inadequate," says Lockbaum. "In force-to-force simulated tests, the terrorists overwhelmed the defenders almost half the time. The NRC also avoids discussing an attack by air, admitting that the domes are not designed to withstand a Sept. 11-type force.

"In fact, smaller planes could hit the control room, and the pools and casks of spent nuclear fuel, which could also release a radioactive cloud. We haven't any no-fly zones over the plants, and there is no anti-aircraft defense such as used in France and other European countries."

He adds that in a recent test, one man dressed in company garb infiltrated a New Jersey atomic plant and placed mock C-4 explosives in two areas that would have released dangerous radioactive gases into the air. It wasn't until Feb. 26, 2002, some six months after Sept. 11, that the NRC even began to slightly improve the weak security system, one still manned by private guards. And it wasn't until last month, April 5, 2000, that it appointed a director of security, one Roy Zimmerman, a long-time NRC employee with no real background in security.

Zimmerman stated that he agrees with Meserve that there is no need for the federalization and that defenses are now adequate. He adds that they are regularly re-examining the situation and are collaborating with the Office of Homeland Security. However, Gov. Tom Ridge's office stated that although it is presenting a national security plan to the president this summer, it did not expect to go into the details of atomic plant defenses. That is left to the agency, and thus basically to the private utilities.

Looking past the bureaucratic jargon, the reality is that our nuclear plants are no more secure than they were before Sept. 11. Not only is federalization necessary, but the defenders should no longer be private utility guards. Instead, we need a squadron of some 25 Marines or Army Special Ops troops at each of the 104 plants, backed by tanks, anti-aircraft and heavy weapons. The air over each plant should become a no-fly zone, buttressed by regular Air Force jet patrols. We can afford nothing less. A successful attack on a nuclear plant would make the deaths and devastation of Sept. 11 look like a minor incident.

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


05/16/02: Who's trying to stop the missile shield?
05/02/02: The irresponsible U.S. Senate
04/25/02: How to slice the pork out of congress' hide
04/11/02: He's no American
03/31/02: Federal Aviation Administration is a threat to our security
03/14/02: Alaskan oil -- another Saudi Arabia?
03/07/02: Secretary Mineta must go
02/28/02: How to reform the IRS tax code
02/21/02: Those darn Europeans -- again
01/31/02: Director of Homeland Insecurity
01/24/02: Musharaff -- Gorbachev of the Muslim world?
01/17/02: Can we stop a nuclear plant attack?
01/09/02: More failed federal aid to education?
12/11/01: The 'American Giant' is still sleeping

© 2002, Creators Syndicate