AOPA takes issue with Markey report on nuclear security

March 28, 2002

The Honorable Edward J. Markey
2108 Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515-2107

Dear Representative Markey:

As president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the world's largest civil aviation organization representing more than 380,000 dues-paying members who own or fly general aviation aircraft, including more than 7,500 in Massachusetts, I am writing to express concern over your recent report on gaps in nuclear reactor security. Specifically, we are troubled by the statement included in the findings that "96% of all U.S. reactors were designed without regard for the potential for impact from even a small aircraft."

Coincidentally, as part of a regular AOPA Pilot Town Meeting schedule, I will be in your state and district next week speaking to our member/pilots (many of them your voters) who are sure to ask what the motivation was, and our response to your comments. Those who will be concerned know the lightplanes they fly have a weight about that of a compact car, a speed and mass not anywhere near airline type aircraft, and a minimal fuel load.

The statement in your report implies that general aviation aircraft are a risk factor for nuclear plants in the United States, which is simply not true. In the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC's) written response to you, it stated that, "the licensees [of active civilian nuclear reactors in the U.S.] concluded that the probability of an accidental aircraft impact was so low that it did not have to be incorporated into the designs for the reactors." According to your report, the NRC also said, "only 4 U.S. reactors include any design features calculated to withstand the impact of an airplane." But one cannot logically conclude from the NRC's written responses that aircraft could pose a threat to nuclear reactors.

All nuclear reactor containment buildings are built like bunkers with at least 12 feet of solid steel and reinforced concrete between the reactor and the outside world. Containment vessels weigh more than 500 tons. A general aviation aircraft, constructed primarily of lightweight aluminum, would crumple upon hitting such a massive object. And according to an engineering study by Sandia National Laboratories, even if a commercial airliner such as a Boeing 767 hit a nuclear facility, it would not likely penetrate any of the reactor containment vessels in the United States.

Your report also stated that nuclear sites should be surrounded with anti-aircraft weapons. However, I believe the risk of killing innocent civilians, both in the air and on the ground, far outweighs the minimal "protection" this recommendation purports to offer.

As the nation learned with the recent INS fiasco—in which notification of student visa approval for two September 11 hijackers arrived at a Florida flight school exactly six months after the attacks—barriers to terrorists have to be raised at the federal level. I feel your report falls short of addressing the real issue—how to keep the terrorists out. As long as a terrorist can enter the country, we're not safe. Government efforts must be concentrated on developing the intelligence information and methods for identifying and stopping any potential terrorist before they can get their hands on anything that could harm the American public.

While I appreciate your concern with the safety and security of the American public, it is important that general aviation not be the unfair target that spreads fear and panic among the populace that is simply not justified.

Sincerely,

Phil Boyer
AOPA President

March 28, 2002