From the Chicago Tribune


Nuclear power in an age of terror

Gerald E. Marsh, Retired physicist
Argonne National

December 4, 2001

Chicago -- We cannot allow panic, politics or political correctness to determine the future of nuclear power in Illinois. The alternative--burning large quantities of coal--is an environmental disaster.

Calls to phase out nuclear power plants are based on erroneous information and a poor perception of the potential risks.

Although a terrorist assault on a nuclear power plant would attract a lot of attention, and some types of attack could conceivably prompt a limited evacuation, the chance of a dangerous release of radioactivity to the atmosphere is remote, and there seems to be no credible way that any members of the public could be seriously irradiated.

Many easier and more lucrative targets are available for terrorists to attack. Without question, sophisticated and well-organized terrorists could do damage to nuclear power plants, and such attempts cannot be ruled out. But to be appealing to a suicidal terrorist cell, a potential mission must offer the prospect of appreciable havoc with a high probability of success. Nuclear power plants do not offer that combination: Scenarios that are likely to succeed will do minimal damage, and those where serious damage could theoretically result have a very small chance of success.

The storage pools for spent nuclear fuel are somewhat more vulnerable. A worst-case scenario could lead to some radioactive material being dispersed beyond the plant perimeter, and a limited evacuation. While the actual risk to health might be small, the ensuing panic would be very serious.

There is no fundamental reason why storage pools have to be located near reactors. They should be underground. But trying to accomplish that through normal channels would lead to political gridlock. For this reason, I and some of my colleagues have called for a presidential directive to open the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada as an interim storage facility and the spent fuel currently in pools moved as quickly as possible to storage pools installed in this secure, underground location.

Our ultimate protection against terrorism will lie in eliminating terrorists, not in attempts to phase out nuclear power, gas storage facilities or other vulnerable facets of our infrastructure.

Copyright © 2001, Chicago Tribune

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