Is the highly radioactive spent fuel being stored in ponds at reactor sites secure against terrorist attack from a small plane carrying explosives or from a gang armed with short-range missiles? A recent report by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, in Washington, D.C., raises questions about the situation in the United States and, by implication, in other countries as well [see photo, "Inviting Target?"].
The report, which was released in April and gave rise to some worried commentary in the general press, said that "attacks [against spent-fuel ponds] by knowledgeable terrorists with access to appropriate technical means are possible." Such an attack could partly or completely drain a pool, so that the fuel would ignite, resulting in the "release of large quantities of radioactive materials to the environment."
The panel stated that it had not been able to get all the information it needed to adequately assess the situation at all U.S. plants, and it recommended that an organization independent of both the nuclear industry and nuclear regulators be given the job of taking a closer look. For prompt protection of vulnerable pools, the panel suggested two relatively simple measures to reduce the immediate risk of fires and radiation release: facilities could reposition fuel assemblies for better heat distribution, and they could install backup sprinkler systems to cool assemblies if they are completely drained.
Spent fuel rods cooling in pools--like the fuel assemblies in this pond at the Duane Arnold Energy Center in Palo, Iowa--could tempt terrorists to attack with missiles or planes.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) responded to the report's release with a statement conceding the advisability of further analysis. But the statement from its chairman accompanied a rebuttal that the NRC had prepared before the NAS report was complete, an unusual procedure. The gist of the NRC's rebuttal was that "today, spent fuel is better protected than ever"--a claim that met with some skepticism. "It is disturbing that the [nuclear regulatory] commission... denied the academy the information needed to assess the effectiveness of security improvements instituted since 9/11," said The New York Times in an editorial. The NRC denies it withheld information from the panel and says misunderstandings arose in connection with what information could be given to the public.