Nuclear reactors are sitting-duck targets, poorly protected and vulnerable to sabotage or attack. If their radioactive inventories were released in the event of a serious attack, hundreds of thousands of people could die immediately, or later, due to radiation sickness or latent cancers. Vast areas of the U.S. could become national sacrifice zones - an outcome too serious to risk. Beyond Nuclear advocates for the shutdown of nuclear power.



Where is America’s cyberdefense plan?

The Empire State Building towers over the skyline of a blackout-darkened New York City just before dawn. (George Widman/Associated Press)That is the online title of an op-ed by Ted Koppel appearing in the Washington Post (the hardcopy headline reads "Before the cyber-blackout"). Koppel, best known for hosting the ABC news program “Nightline” from 1980 to 2005, is the author of the new book, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.

The op-ed raises the specter of a power outage lasting not hours, or days, but weeks, or months, due to a coordinated cyber-attack on the vulnerable U.S. electricity grid.

But the op-ed does not address what this would mean at the 100 still operating atomic reactors across the country, and even at the numerous atomic reactors permanently shutdown. Even if operating atomic reactors were able to power down and shutdown safely during a power outage, their thermally hot cores would still have to be cooled for several days before cold shutdown was reached.

After all, the three operating reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, Japan did successfully SCRAM the moment the 9.0 earthquake struck on 3/11/11. It was the inability to cool the cores in the following days, due to the lost of the electric grid and the backup emergency diesel generators (EDGs) that led to the triple-meltdown.

This is the cautionary tale for a massive cyber-attack on the U.S. electric grid, vis a vis nuclear power plants. The hot cores would need to be cooled for at least several days, if not longer, before cold shutdown was achieved. But so too would high-level radioactive waste storage pools, even at atomic reactors that have been long permanently shutdown.

For hot reactor cores, this means EDGs would have to take the place of the electric grid, as the source of power to run the safety and cooling systems, for days or longer. But only so much diesel fuel is required to be stored on-site at reactors, as little as days' worth. The mass societal disruption caused by a widespread power outage would make diesel fuel re-supply to atomic reactors difficult to impossible.

This could make harrowing decisions necessary. For example, during the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, diesel fuel supplies for EDGs at area hospitals had to be re-directed to the Turkey Point nuclear power plant, to keep EDGs running there. Thus, electricity at hospitals, in the aftermath of a major hurricane, was deemed secondary, as the priority had to be preventing a meltdown at an atomic reactor.

In the case of high-level radioactive waste storage pools, at both still operating reactors, as well as long permanently shutdown ones, the emergency would be initially complicated by the inexplicable fact that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) does not require pools to be connected to EDGs in the first place. The power to run the safety and cooling systems on pools is entirely reliant on the electric grid. Thus, if the grid is lost, the pools will be entirely without electricity -- unless and until, in an ad hoc fashion, EDGs can quickly be connected to the pools.

Cooling thermally hot reactor cores invovles a much shorter fuse than cooling pools. The former allows only hours without cooling, before meltdown begins. But even the longer fuse with pools -- days or even weeks before pool water boils off, all the way down to the tops of the irradiated fuel assemblies stored in the bottom of the pool, under tens of feet of water, could be implicated. After all, Koppel warns that the cyber-attack on the electric grid could result in not hours or days of power outage, but weeks or months.

Again, at Fukushima Daiichi, it took 10 days just to restore the lights in a single control room. It took much longer to re-establish stable cooling water supplies to the melted down reactor units, as well as to the high-level radioactive waste storage pools. And that involved an albeit massive one-two punch of natural disasters, earthquake and tsunami, not an intentional attack.

An ironic image accompanied Koppel's op-ed, showing the Empire State Building towering over the skyline of a blackout-darkened New York City just before dawn in August 2003 (photo by George Widman/Associated Press, see above). The August 2003 Northeast Blackout was the second largest in history, affecting more than 50 million people in the northeast U.S., as well as Canada. A couple dozen atomic reactors in both countries had to power down and rely on EDGs to cool their still thermally hot shutdown cores, as a safety precaution, due to the instability of the electric grid. Ironically enough, that power outage was not due to a cyber-attack, but rather to a tree branch, touching a power line, in northwest Ohio. FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company (FENOC) was in the process of hemorrhaging $600 million due to its Hole-in-the-Head fiasco at the Davis-Besse atomic reactor. The replacement reactor lid for its dangerously corroded one, along with the replacement power costs and even NRC and Department of Justice fines, meant FENOC didn't have the money to pay for tree-trimming in its service area. But, conveniently for FENOC and the nuclear power industry, those devilish dots rarely to never get connected to the Northeast Blackout of August 2003.


Gusterson in BAS: "How the next US nuclear accident could happen"

Although oddly titled and framed (since when are terrorist attacks -- the main thrust of Gustersen's article -- "accidents"?), Hugh Gusterson's article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists does make good points about security, or lack thereof, at U.S. nuclear weapons complex sites.

His warning is also very relevant to vulnerabilities at U.S. commercial nuclear power plants. However, although Gundersen mentions "the potential for safety failures at US nuclear plants," and Chernobyl by name, he does not directly refer to any U.S. nuclear power plants in his article.

He does, however, focus his criticism on security failures at U.S. nuclear weapons complex sites, namely Oak Ridge's Y-12, and safety failures at Los Alamos.

Regarding the latter, his warning about profit-driven speed-up of radioactive waste barrel loading is quite apt. Such cutting of corners likely contributed to the radioactive barrel burst underground at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. That $500 million to $1 billion mistake (DOE and L.A. Times estimates, respectively, for the cost of "recovery" at WIPP) exposed two-dozen workers to ultra-hazardous, internal alpha particle contamination, and caused an atmospheric release of plutonium and other trans-uranics that fell out over the local landscape.


Security guards sue Entergy for overtime pay at Palisades

NRC file photo of Entergy's Palisades atomic reactor on the Lake Michigan shoreline in southwest Michigan.As reported by Jim Hayden at the Holland Sentinel, nearly two dozen security guards and security department supervisors at the Palisades atomic reactor in Covert, MI (photo, left) have launched a legal action against Entergy Nuclear. They are demanding back overtime pay due them, but Entergy refuses to pay. Vermont Yankee atomic reactor security guards previously prevailed in a similar lawsuit against Entergy.

Although the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) claims the "chilled work environment" in Palisades' security guard department has been resolved, security guards themselves seem to think otherwise -- including their feeling that as soon as NRC enhanced oversight ends, Entergy will return to harassing guards who "make waves" (that is, do their jobs, and call attention to problems).


"Nuclear power plant’s security changes mixed one year after ‘unusual’ death"

Cooper atomic reactor is shown here during a historic flood in the 1990s.As reported by Joe Jordan at Nebraska Watchdog, security protocols have changed little, if at all, at the Cooper nuclear power plant (photo, left) in Nebraska, a full year after a worker was found dead on the "critical refueling floor," 17 hours after he was last seen. 66-year old Ronald Nurney died of a heart attack, although it is unclear how long he suffered. None of the many cameras in the area detected his distress, and no one thought to look for him, despite his long absence.

As reported, 'Nurney’s widow, Donna, told Nebraska Watchdog she didn’t understand “how anybody in a nuclear power plant can go missing for that long and nobody look for him.”'

For their part, Cooper's owner, Nebraska Public Power District, its operator, Entergy Nuclear, and its supposed regulator, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have not seen fit to change security procedures, a full year later.

The Cooper atomic reactor is identical in design, and vintage, to the Fukushima Daiichi Units that melted down and exploded in Japan beginning on March 11, 2011.


NRC OI whitewashes Entergy harassment against security whisteblowers at Palisades

As reported by the Holland Sentinel, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Office of Investigations' has dropped any further action stemming from allegations raises by fired Palisades security department supervisors and guards. The whistleblowers allege that they were harassed, and eventually terminated, by Entergy for raising security concerns and raising alarms about regulatory violations.

Michigan Radio has also reported on this story.