RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The 9/11 attacks raised fears that terrorists might fly a jetliner into a nuclear power plant. The activist group, the Committee to Bridge the Gap, used Hollywood techniques to lobby for improved security at nuclear plants. It put out this video narrated by Martin Sheen.
(Soundbite of a video)
Mr. MARTIN SHEEN (Actor): (As Narrator) An attack on a nuclear reactor could release enough radioactivity to kill tens of thousands of people, while contaminating an area the size of Pennsylvania.
MONTAGNE: Yesterday, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided not to require plants to build extra defenses.
NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: Activist groups wanted the NRC to require each nuclear power plant a build a cage of steel beams and cables around the reactor. Michele Boyd is legislative director with the group Public Citizen, which had been pushing for these defenses known as beam hinge shields.
Ms. MICHELE BOYD (Legislative Director, Public Citizen): Basically if a plane were to try to crash into the reactor, these steel beams and cabling would deflect the impact and would protect the reactors. The NRC flatly rejected this very sensible proposal.
KESTENBAUM: Her concern is not that the big dome you see around the core would crack, but that the plane crash could start a fire, which could lead to a loss of cooling water and then a meltdown.
Ms. BOYD: It's appalling that the NRC, five and a half years after 9/11, would pass regulations that would not require nuclear reactors to be protected against air attack.
KESTENBAUM: A shield would be relatively cheap, she says, less than one percent of the cost of building a reactor. But others debate that number and the usefulness of a beam hinge shield. Ed McGaffigan is one of five commissioners at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, all agreed not to require the extra shield.
Mr. ED MCGAFFIGAN (Commissioner, Nuclear Regulatory Commission): The costs were guestimated to be, you know, many, many hundreds of millions of dollars for these sites.
KESTENBAUM: For each plant.
Mr. MCGAFFIGAN: For each plant.
KESTENBAUM: And he says the power plants are already well protected. He says the shield would add little or no extra security. The government has done classified studies of what would happen if a big plane hit a nuclear reactor. McGaffigan says the bottom-line is reassuring.
Mr. MCGAFFIGAN: Our research indicates that in the vast majority of cases, if a diving commercial airliner were to hit one of our power plants, it would be a large industrial accident. Terrible for the facility, but there'd be no release.
KESTENBAUM: McGaffigan says there is also an agreement in place for the military notify plants of a threatening plane so that workers can do an emergency shutdown called the SCRAM.
Mr. MCGAFFIGAN: The only way to deal diving commercial airliners in terms of active defense, is either with surface-to-air missiles or with fighter planes. And neither of them are appropriate for the security forces at nuclear power plants.
KESTENBAUM: McGaffigan says the new rules approved yesterday don't actually impose many new requirements; most of the post 9/11 security improvements were completed in 2004.
KESTENBAUM: David Kestenbaum, NPR News.
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