Terrorist attacks in US prompt alert at nuclear facilities

26 September 2001

It is likely that the attacks will upset plans for a revival of the nuclear power industry.

US energy secretary Spencer Abraham warned the IAEA conference last month that terrorists could target nuclear plants or attempt to steal materials to make bombs. He said they will use any method and that “the terrible events demonstrate in the clearest possible fashion the importance of maintaining the highest levels of security over nuclear materials.” Mr Abraham brought a message from President Bush urging the agency to keep pace with “the real and growing threat of nuclear proliferation.” Following the attack, all US nuclear power plants, non-power reactors, nuclear fuel facilities, and gaseous diffusion plants heeded the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s advice to go to the highest level of security as a precautionary measure.

NRC spokesman William Beecher commented: “While there was no credible general or specific threats to any of these facilities, the recommendation was considered prudent.” The heightened security measures included, among other things, increasing patrols to the perimeter areas of the plants, inspecting all barriers, and increasing the number of security personnel. Beecher said containments at US nuclear plants are designed to withstand a direct hit from an airliner.

Nuclear critics predicted Congress would take a closer look at the safety of nuclear waste transportation by roads and rails.

The heightened security measures are likely to remain for some time and could have permanent effects. The cost of the additional security measures remains unclear, but federal regulators have indicated they are ready to approve requests for electricity rate increases, should they be requested.

American Nuclear Insurers said the terrorist attacks help make a case for renewal of the federal Price-Anderson nuclear insurance law, which is due to expire in less than 11 months. If a nuclear plant had been the target of the terrorists, rather than the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, up to $9.5 billion in financial support would have been immediately available, a spokesman said. There would be no need for injured parties to wait for courts to decide who was negligent. Under Price-Anderson, the money would come from a fee all US nuclear facilities pay, plus post-event assessments on nuclear operators if the damage were severe. Congress would decide how to provide financial support beyond the liability limit, if necessary.

Nuclear plants are designed to withstand the impact of an aircraft crash. But the IAEA admitted that plants were only designed for accidental impacts from the smaller aircraft widely used during the 1960s and 1970s, when most nuclear plants were built.

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