May 16, 2003
The Honorable Tim Pawlenty Office of the Governor 130 State Capitol 75 Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd St. Paul, MN 55155
RE: Flight Restrictions over Nuclear Power Plants
Dear Governor Pawlenty:
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) is a membership organization representing the interests of almost 400,000 general aviation pilots and aircraft owners nationwide. There are more 15,000 pilots flying 8,000 general aviation aircraft based in the state of Minnesota.
AOPA is concerned about recent statements you have made regarding the safety of nuclear power plants in your state and your request for airspace restrictions over these plants. AOPA believes that general aviation aircraft do not pose a risk to nuclear power plant safety and that it is inappropriate for the federal government to institute airspace restrictions or allow the closing of vital general aviation airspace or airports in proximity to them. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, in consultation with top security advisors, has reviewed this important concern on several occasions and has determined that airspace restrictions over nuclear power plants are not necessary or appropriate.
Independent nuclear engineers have concluded that general aviation aircraft are not effective weapons and are not a significant threat to nuclear power plant safety. A general aviation aircraft, even if loaded with explosives, would not be capable of penetrating the containment vessel of a plant. Spent nuclear fuel rods are also not at risk. The rods are stored in massive shielding systems or in deep pools, covered with up to 50 feet of water, and the pool walls are concrete and steel. The pool itself is a relatively small target and even if the aircraft could hit the pool, experts say it could not ignite the rods.
All nuclear plants have been designed to withstand an impact by a large aircraft. This design standard is maintained because many plants are located in the proximity of an airport, federal airways, and military aircraft training routes.
Last June, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) submitted a report noting these facts into the congressional record during a Senate hearing. At this same hearing, Senator Christopher (Kit) Bond (R-Mo.) stated, "Commercial nuclear plants are probably the most physically secure and least vulnerable of our nation's industrial infrastructure. They are robust, hardened facilities with numerous redundant systems designed to assure public safety."
While general aviation does not pose a threat, the FAA has issued an advisory to pilots to avoid circling or loitering over power plants. AOPA supports this advisory and encourages pilots to fly responsibly.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush has continued to be firm in his desire that the United States should not allow terrorist attacks to undermine our way of life. Arbitrary airspace restrictions are contrary to the President's message. As stewards of the National Airspace System, the FAA is obligated to look past the emotional grandstanding of local politicians and preserve the integrity of the national aviation system.
If the FAA or Transportation Security Administration were to identify credible threats to nuclear power plants, rest assured that the appropriate federal agencies would take action to protect its citizens.
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