Against Nukephobia

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America's focus on terrorism has breathed new life into the faltering campaign of anti-nuke activists, whose goal is the elimination of nuclear power. Many activist groups, such as the Nuclear Control Institute, Greenpeace and Long Island's Standing for Truth About Radiation (STAR), in TV interviews and newspaper ads, have raised the specter of suicide skyjackers crashing planes into the containment vessels of nuclear plants, causing disasters that they say would result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and leave entire regions of the country uninhabitable for years, if not centuries. Anticipating terrorist attacks on the spent nuclear fuel rods being shipped to Nevada for storage, they label these casks "mobile Chernobyls" containing radioactive material that they insist could kill tens of thousands. They have gone largely unchallenged---until now. Writing in the journal Science, 19 members of the National Academy of Engineering take issue with the activists, declaring. "Now is the time to clear the air and speak a few simple scientific and engineering truths."

The engineers, many of them with ties to the nuclear industry, state flatly that no airplane, regardless of size, can breach the five-foot-thick, steel-lined concrete walls of a nuclear plant's containment vessel. They note that in a 1988 crash test, an unmanned plane flying at 485 mph. collapsed against a steel-reinforced concrete test wall, its fuselage penetrating less than an inch, its heavy engines digging only an inch deeper. And what about aircraft the size of those that brought down the World Trade Center towers? They authors point to analyses showing that larger, even faster planes can't penetrate the containment vessels; they fully offset their greater impact by absorbing more energy during their collapse.

Those mobile Chernobyls? Field tests show, say the engineers, that there is "virtually nothing" anyone could do to the "nearly indestructible" casks in which the spent fuel rods are shipped. They can't explode and there's no liquid radioactivity to leak out. Only the latest anti-tank artillery could breach the casks, and even in that worst-case scenario, say the authors, the radioactive chunks scattered nearby by those weapons could expose only those in the immediate vicinity.

The authors also put to rest the "China Syndrome," the notion made popular by the Jane Fonda movie of the same name. It held that a reactor meltdown could cause the superheated reactor core to melt through the bottom of the vessel and so far into the earth beneath it that it would eventually emerge in China. Several tests of the vessel bottom at Three Mile Island demonstrated that the molten reactor core, weighing between 10 and 20 metric tons, had penetrated less than a fifth of an inch into the vessel bottom.

The anti-nuke activists have been wrong for decades. Nuclear plants have operated in the U.S. for a half century and. Despite some poor management, with the exception of Three Mile Island they have had only minor leaks and mechanical failures. Now consider this: Three Mile Island was by far the worst U.S. nuclear accident, and activists for years have been blaming the partial meltdown for a host of ills, particularly for what they claim are high cancer rates in the surrounding region.

Pennsylvania health authorities have consistently challenged those charges and were proven correct in 2000, when the prestigious University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health completed a 13-year study of 32,000 people who lived within five miles of TMI at the time of the accident. The study found no significant increase in the incidence of any kind of cancer in that group compared with the incidence in those living at greater distances from the plant. Indeed, there is no evidence that the TMI disaster caused any cancer, let alone any death.

The Pittsburgh study reined in some anti-nuke activists, but the new terrorist threats again has them at full gallop. Now, they feel, there is even better reason to campaign for shutting down all U.S. nuclear plants. That plays directly into the hands of the terrorists. For one thing, this kind of shutdown would immediately reduce the nation's electric energy generation by a fifth, and plunge the already-battered U.S. economy into depression. It would also require importing additional millions of barrels of oil to make up for the energy shortage. All in all, it would be a bad deal for America. It's time for the anti-nuke activists to face reality and to mend their ways.