"Virtually no reactor containment in the US was designed to withstand a hit by a jumbo jet. Significant parts of the plant essential to preventing a meltdown are outside containment anyway."
Hirsch is speaking of power lines, which transmit electricity from the plant and also carry electricity to it power that's used to keep dangerous components cool and safe. If that power were cut off for any length of time, a meltdown could occur in the pools where explosive spent fuel is kept.
These spent-fuel storage areas essentially big swimming pools where radioactive waste is kept underwater until a long-term storage facility is built rely on a steady pumping of water to cool the superheated waste. All you'd have to do is stop that water pump, and there'd be a meltdown. And the storage areas don't necessarily have the same fortified structures as the reactors.
Hirsch said, "A successful attack on a nuclear plant or, even worse, a spent-fuel pool would be the worst terrorist event to ever occur on earth by far, capable of killing over 100,000 people immediately and hundreds of thousands of latent cancers thereafter, contaminating an area the size of Pennsylvania for generations."
There's no immediate solution in sight for long-term storage, so these pools of deadly waste will likely remain on reactor sites for many years.
San Luis Obispo County's Mothers for Peace recently sued the NRC over the newly established laws regarding protection against terrorist attacks, which only require plants to be able to ward off five potential external terrorists on the ground. It took 19 people to pull off the Sept. 11 attacks. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled that power plant operators must also consider the possibility of an air attack when designing spent-fuel storage tanks.
Mothers for Peace is fond of noting that existing security measures aren't what you'd call foolproof. During a recent earthquake, 56 of 131 sirens in the San Luis Obispo area designed to alert residents of a possible accident at the plant didn't go off because the power was out and they aren't backed up by generators or batteries.
When Mothers for Peace and the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility brought the failure to the attention of the NRC, the agency said that nothing is perfect and that the sirens over the course of 1,000 hours worked 99 percent of the time.
"Except the five hours you'd actually want them to work," David Weisman of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility said.
Nuclear power is either a creeping killer or a sitting bomb. Wind farms and solar-panel arrays are not leaching poisons into the environment. They're not direct targets for terrorist attacks, and if they were, the result wouldn't be all that horrible. Imagine cleaning up a bombed wind farm versus a nuclear power plant.
"Wind farms are on nobody's list of targets," Weisman added. "If a windmill falls and there's no one there to hear it, do you need an emergency evacuation plan?"
A centerpiece of the pro-nuke argument is that nuclear power is a baseload source, meaning it can generate energy all day, every day. Solar and wind, of course, rely on the cruel (and unpredictable) forces of nature to generate power.
But one could argue the same about nuclear power plants. They're run by people and the record of those operators isn't encouraging.
Moore expressed great confidence in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission: "They have very, very stringent requirements and regulations. It's all there for anybody to see. All of these reactors are inspected regularly. There is no reason in my estimation to suspect the NRC of anything other than being a responsible watchdog agency. If you want to take the time to dig into it, you can find out what's going on."
David Lochbaum does take that time and he's found out a lot.