Sometimes its what they don't say that's important. Congress's watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), this week presented its "preliminary observations" on efforts to protect nuclear power plants from terrorist attack. The GAO focused on the risk of security breaches and attacks by ground forces. There was limited mention of the slight risk from an airliner hitting a facility; GAO did not question the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC's) evaluation that an airliner strike presented only a low risk of radiation escaping.
More significantly, there was no mention at all of general aviation.
"We're not surprised," said Andy Cebula, AOPA senior vice president of Government and Technical Affairs. "The independent research that AOPA commissioned in 2002 showed that the typical general aviation airplane, even loaded with explosives, couldn't breach the reactor containment vessel, and hitting auxiliary buildings wouldn't lead to a control failure." (See " AOPA-commissioned report concludes general aviation not a threat to nuclear power plants.")
The GAO testimony noted that "nuclear power facilities are among the most hardened industrial facilities in the United States. They are massive structures with thick exterior walls and interior barriers of reinforced concrete designed to withstand tornadoes (and projectiles propelled by tornadoes), hurricanes, fires, floods, and earthquakes."
While most facilities weren't designed around the notion that terrorists might deliberately crash an aircraft into them, most were designed to withstand an accident involving an airliner.
After the September 11 attacks, the NRC studied the potential effects of a large commercial aircraft being deliberately flown into a nuclear power site. The detailed results of the study are classified, but according to NRC officials, certain types of aircraft hitting facilities at certain locations pose some risks.
However, "the officials noted that, in these cases, the plants would have enough time to take advantage of certain safety features to substantially lessen the risks. NRC officials also believe that the plants would have sufficient time to implement emergency preparedness plans, if necessary," said the GAO. Again, the watchdog agency didn't question that conclusion.
The GAO said that "the nation's commercial nuclear plants are no doubt more secure against a terrorist attack now than they were on September 11, 2001."
September 17, 2004