Nuclear rod pools easy terror target, report cautions

It's a nightmare that scientists say could happen

errorists penetrate a nuclear power plant but ignore the concrete-protected reactor. They're really after the pool of water containing hundreds of used fuel rods.

Explosive charges lead to an uncontrollable fire, sending radiation into the air.

A National Academy of Sciences report released yesterday concludes such an event could happen. It says the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and nuclear industry have not done enough to understand the vulnerability.

It's "a critical national security issue," said the academy's president, Bruce Alberts, after the release of a report subject to haggling with regulators over how much of it should remain secret.

The scientific experts found that many fuel storage pools at nuclear power plants in 31 states may be vulnerable and that regulators should conduct a fresh examination of each plant.

In the meantime, the scientists said, plant operators should promptly reconfigure used fuel rods in the storage pools to lower decay-heat intensity and install spray devices to reduce the risk of a fire should a storage facility be attacked.

Congress sought the study because of the heightened concerns that terrorists might seek to target nuclear power plants.

At 68 plants, including some already shut down, thousands of used reactor fuel rods are in deep water pools. Dry, concrete casks hold a smaller number of these rods.

Much more highly radioactive fuel is stored in pools than is in the more protected reactors – 103 in total – at these sites.

Some scientists and nuclear watchdog groups long have contended that these pools are at much greater risk of a catastrophic attack than the reactors themselves.

Some plants where pools are all or partially underground present less of a problem. Others, including a series of boiling-water reactors where pools are more exposed, represent greater concern, said Bob Alvarez, a former Energy Department official.

The report said an aircraft or high explosive attack could cause water to drain from the pools and expose the fuel rods, unleashing an uncontrollable fire and large amounts of radiation.

Nuclear regulators said they would give the report's recommendations "serious consideration." But the NRC has disputed many findings and suggestions from the experts.

After the classified document was provided to members of Congress last month, the NRC's chairman told lawmakers in a letter that some of the panel's assessments about plants' vulnerabilities were "unreasonable" and that certain conclusions "lacked sound technical basis."

"Today, spent fuel is better protected than ever," Nils Diaz wrote.

The NRC said it believes the potential for large releases of radiation from such a fire "to be extremely low." Still, the agency has advised reactor operations to consider refiguring the pools' fuel rods – pairing new ones with older ones to reduce the heat.

By H. Josef Hebert ASSOCIATED PRESS April 7, 2005

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