Vulnerability of nuclear waste debated

NRC sees less of a terror threat than science academy

WASHINGTON -- A semisecret debate is raging between two highly technical agencies here, the National Academy of Sciences and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, about the vulnerability of nuclear wastes to terrorist attack and about how secret the debate should be.

The academy, under orders from Congress, produced a study last summer about whether the spent-fuel pools at nuclear reactors were vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The pools contain most of the radioactive material ever produced at the reactors, far more than the reactors themselves.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, an independent group of scientists published a paper in a Princeton scientific journal asserting that an enemy could drain a pool and set off a fire that would be "significantly worse than Chernobyl."

Academy officials say they have hit a roadblock. By law, the academy, which Congress charters, coordinates the work of academic experts from around the country, and it is supposed to make its findings public. In cases such as the nuclear waste, it is supposed to work with the relevant federal agency to develop a version of its report that has no information that would be useful to terrorists.

The academy sent a draft to the commission in November. But the two have not agreed on what to release. An NRC official said the problem was "aggregation." Although no secret facts appear in the academy version, piecing together the material disclosed would provide useful information. This month, the academy took the unusual step of sending members of Congress its version, with classified information removed but still including "safety sensitive information."

A few days later, the commission responded by sending some members of Congress a rebuttal to the classified report. A spokesman, Eliot Brenner, said this was not a response to the academy, but because Congress wanted to know what actions the commission would take.

The commission said the academy panel had "identified some scenarios that are unreasonable."

The rebuttal, sent by NRC Chairman Nils Diaz to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who is chairman of a Senate subcommittee on energy and water, said using those situations could "lead to a misinterpretation of the actual risk, and this can cause confusion."

Some ideas put forward by the academy "lacked a sound technical basis," including having reactor operators move more fuel from the pools to dry casks, the rebuttal said.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005 By MATTHEW L. WALD THE NEW YORK TIMES

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