Our political leaders need to resolve a serious predicament. A Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulation allows power plants like the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in Lacey to operate in a post-9/11 environment, although the plant’s reactor building is structurally inadequate to protect used nuclear fuel rods from a terrorist attack.
Oyster Creek is neither structurally robust nor designed to resist an aircraft impact. This concern may also be present in 22 nuclear sites, some with more than one reactor building.
The Nuclear Security Coalition, a consortium of independent nuclear watchdog groups, petitioned the NRC earlier this month to address structural vulnerabilities at plants with building designs similar to Oyster Creek’s. The magnitude of this issue and its implications for national security require congressional oversight; it should not be left only to the NRC review process.
To the best of my knowledge, the current design-basis-threat orders issued by the NRC do not include a requirement to protect against an aircraft attack. In addition, the most recent evacuation plan for Oyster Creek does not consider an evacuation based on a suicide aircraft attack that can result in a Chernobyl-type event.
The evacuation plan assumes an orderly egress from towns around the power plant, ignoring any road congestion resulting from panic outside the 10-mile plant radius. At last month’s public hearing on Oyster Creek’s evacuation plan, which estimated it would take seven to 10 hours to evacuate a 10-mile radius around the plant, someone asked how slow the response would have to be in order for the pl an to be deemed unacceptable. The panel’s response: There is no time limit. This is unacceptable.
The impact of a large aircraft into the reactor building’s concrete floor near the spent fuel pool would cause catastrophic building failure. It would allow burning fuel to leak onto the floors below, damaging vital wiring and equipment needed to shut down the reactor. An aircraft impact would severely damage the spent fuel pool, causing a water leak that would uncover tons of radioactive fuel r ods. The result of a terrorist attack on Oyster Creek’s reactor building would exceed a Chernobyl meltdown event because there is more fuel in Oyster Creek’s fuel pool than there was in Chernobyl’s reactor.
The impact from only one 1,000-pound object traveling at 300 mph and hitting the floor at an angle of 30 degrees above horizontal exceeds the strongest floor beam capacity by more than 500 percent. Impact on the weakest floor beam exceeds the beam’s capacity by 8,000 percent. The order of magnitude of these values clearly demonstrates Oyster Creek’s reactor building is an unacceptable safety risk.
There are other important reasons the Oyster Creek plant should be shut down:
“The federal government is not yet prepared to identify and prevent every terrorist plot, and the level of expertise required to stop terrorism may not occur for many years. Exelon, the owner of Oyster Creek, stated in public information newsletters that it relies on our president, the Armed Forces, the FBI and intelligence agencies to protect the plant from attack outside the fence of the plant . That isn’t good enough.
“As described in the 9/11 Commission report, al-Qaida terrorists are meticulous in their planning and they are patient. The longer Oyster Creek is allowed to operate, the longer it is a target of opportunity.
To succeed, they need only one aircraft, flying from an overseas airport, to disappear from FAA radar screens 15 minutes before impacting Oyster Creek’s reactor building. Timelines supplied by the 9/11 Commission report show our military fighters cannot take off, intercept and shoot down a plane within 15 minutes after terrorist actions are recognized by FAA personnel.
“If Oyster Creek were shut down today, all fuel in the reactor vessel must be transferred to the spent fuel pool to “cool” a minimum of five years before it can be removed from the reactor building. Before any used radioactive fuel can be taken out of the reactor building’s fuel pool, Exelon must order, build and install additional dry storage vaults to store the material somewhere on site.
“The longer Oyster Creek operates without an exact closing date, the more the work culture at the plant will degrade because of fear of losing a job. Exelon management will postpone equipment upgrades or choose “cheap fixes” if there is no assurance the company will recoup its investment for any plant repair or upgrade.
I urge residents to support the immediate shutdown of Oyster Creek, to lobby town leaders to pass resolutions demanding the plant’s closure and to lobby congressional representatives to pass laws eliminating NRC regulations that place the interest of private companies over public safety.
Stephen M. Lazorchak, Dover Township, is a consulting structural engineer and a former Oyster Creek employee.
Originally published in the Asbury Park Press.