Nuclear Threat to Itself
by Harvey Wasserman*, October 2001
No sane nation
hands to a wartime enemy atomic weapons set to go off within its
own homeland, and then lights the fuse.
Yet as the bombs and missiles drop
on Afghanistan, the certainty of terror retaliation inside America
has turned our 103 nuclear power plants into weapons of apocalyptic
destruction, just waiting to be used against us.
One or both planes that crashed into the World
Trade Center on September 11, could have easily obliterated the
two atomic reactors now operating at Indian Point, about 40 miles
up the Hudson.
The catastrophic devastation would have been unfathomable.
But those and a hundred other American reactors are still running.
Security has been heightened. But all are vulnerable to another
sophisticated terror attack aimed at perpetrating the unthinkable.
Indian Point Unit One was shut long ago by public
outcry. But Units 2 & 3 have operated since the 1970s. Back
then there was talk of requiring reactor containment domes to
be strong enough to withstand a jetliner crash. But the biggest
jets were far smaller than the ones that fly today. Nor did those
early calculations account for the jet fuel whose hellish fire
melted the critical steel supports that ultimately brought down
the Trade Center.
Had one or both those jets hit one or both the
operating reactors at Indian Point, the ensuing cloud of radiation
would have dwarfed the ones at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Three Mile
Island and Chernobyl.
The intense radioactive heat within today's operating
reactors is the hottest anywhere on the planet. So are the hellish
levels of radioactivity.
Because Indian Point has operated so long, its
accumulated radioactive burden far exceeds that of Chernobyl,
which ran only four years before it exploded.
Some believe the WTC jets could have collapsed
or breached either of the Indian Point containment domes. But
at very least the massive impact and intense jet fuel fire would
destroy the human ability to control the plants' functions. Vital
cooling systems, backup power generators and communications networks
Indeed, Indian Point Unit One was shut because
activists warned that its lack of an emergency core cooling system
made it an unacceptable risk. The government ultimately agreed.
But today terrorist attacks could destroy those
same critical cooling and control systems that are vital to not
only the Unit Two and Three reactor cores, but to the spent fuel
pools that sit on site.
The assault would not require a large jet. The
safety systems are extremely complex and virtually indefensible.
One or more could be wiped out with a wide range of easily deployed
small aircraft, ground-based weapons, truck bombs or even chemical/biological
assaults aimed at the operating work force. Dozens of US reactors
have repeatedly failed even modest security tests over the years.
Even heightened wartime standards cannot guarantee protection
of the vast, supremely sensitive controls required for reactor
Without continous monitoring and guaranteed water
flow, the thousands of tons of radioactive rods in the cores and
the thousands more stored in those fragile pools would rapidly
melt into super-hot radioactive balls of lava that would burn
into the ground and the water table and, ultimately, the Hudson.
Indeed, a jetcrash like the one on 9/11 or other
forms of terrorist assault at Indian Point could yield three infernal
fireballs of molten radioactive lava burning through the earth
and into the aquifer and the river. Striking water they would
blast gigantic billows of horribly radioactive steam into the
atmosphere. Prevailing winds from the north and west might initially
drive these clouds of mass death downriver into New York City
and east into Westchester and Long Island.
But at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, winds ultimately
shifted around the compass to irradiate all surrounding areas
with the devastating poisons released by the on-going fiery torrent.
At Indian Point, thousands of square miles would have been saturated
with the most lethal clouds ever created or imagined, depositing
relentless genetic poisons that would kill forever.
In nearby communities like Buchanan, Nyack, Monsey
and scores more, infants and small children would quickly die
en masse. Virtually all pregnant women would spontaneously abort,
or ultimately give birth to horribly deformed offspring. Ghastly
sores, rashes, ulcerations and burns would afflict the skin of
millions. Emphysema, heart attacks, stroke, multiple organ failure,
hair loss, nausea, inability to eat or drink or swallow, diarrhea
and incontinance, sterility and impotence, asthma, blindness,
and more would kill thousands on the spot, and doom hundreds of
thousands if not millions. A terrible metallic taste would afflict
virtually everyone downwind in New York, New Jersey and New England,
a ghoulish curse similar to that endured by the fliers who dropped
the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagaskai, by those living downwind
from nuclear bomb tests in the south seas and Nevada, and by victims
caught in the downdrafts from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
Then comes the abominable wave of cancers, leukemias,
lymphomas, tumors and hellish diseases for which new names will
have to be invented, and new dimensions of agony will beg description.
Indeed, those who survived the initial wave of
radiation would envy those who did not.
Evacuation would be impossible, but thousands would
die trying. Bridges and highways would become killing fields for
those attempting to escape to destinations that would soon enough
become equally deadly as the winds shifted.
Attempts to quench the fires would be futile. At
Chernobyl, pilots flying helicopters that dropped boron on the
fiery core died in droves. At Indian Point, such missions would
be a sure ticket to death. Their utility would be doubtful as
the molten cores rage uncontrolled for days, weeks and years,
spewing ever more devastation into the eco-sphere. More than 800,000
Soviet draftees were forced through Chernobyl's seething remains
in a futile attempt to clean it up. They are dying in droves.
Who would now volunteer for such an American task force?
The radioactive cloud from Chernobyl blanketed
the vast Ukraine and Belarus landscape, then carried over Europe
and into the jetstream, surging through the west coast of the
United States within ten days, carrying across our northern tier,
circling the globe, then coming back again.
The radioactive clouds from Indian Point would
enshroud New York, New Jersey, New England, and carry deep into
the Atlantic and up into Canada and across to Europe and around
the globe again and again.
The immediate damage would render thousands of
the world's most populous and expensive square miles permanently
uninhabitable. All five boroughs of New York City would be an
apocalyptic wasteland. The World Trade Center would be rendered
as unusable and even more lethal by a jet crash at Indian Point
than it was by the direct hits of 9/11. All real estate and economic
value would be poisonously radioactive throughout the entire region.
Irreplaceable trillions in human capital would be forever lost.
As at Three Mile Island, where thousands of farm
and wild animals died in heaps, and as at Chernobyl, where soil,
water and plant life have been hopelessly irradiated, natural
eco-systems on which human and all other life depends would be
permanently and irrevocably destroyed,
Spiritually, psychologically, financially, ecologically,
our nation would never recover.
This is what we missed by a mere forty miles near
New York City on September 11. Now that we are at war, this is
what could be happening as you read this.
There are 103 of these potential Bombs of the Apocalypse
now operating in the United States. They generate just 18% of
America's electricity, just 8% of our total energy. As with reactors
elsewhere, the two at Indian Point have both been off-line for
long periods of time with no appreciable impact on life in New
York. Already an extremely expensive source of electricity, the
cost of attempting to defend these reactors will put nuclear energy
even further off the competitive scale.
Since its deregulation crisis, California---already
the nation's second-most efficient state---cut further into its
electric consumption by some 15%. Within a year the US could cheaply
replace virtually with increased efficiency all the reactors now
so much more expensive to operate and protect.
Yet, as the bombs fall and the terror escalates,
Congress is fast-tracking a form of legal immunity to protect
the operators of reactors like Indian Point from liability in
case of a meltdown or terrorist attack.
Why is our nation handing its proclaimed enemies
the weapons of our own mass destruction, and then shielding from
liability the companies that insist on continuing to operate them?
Do we take this war seriously? Are we committed
to the survival of our nation?
If so, the ticking reactor bombs that could obliterate
the very core of our life and of all future generations must be
* Harvey Wasserman is author of The Last Energy War and
co-author of Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America's Experience
with Atomic Radiation.