Feds downplay risk to nuclear plants


WASHINGTON (AP) – Federal officials assured Congress on Tuesday that Indian Point and other nuclear power plants can quickly change internal operations to protect the public from radiation exposure if the U.S. military warns a hijacked plane is headed toward a reactor.

The assurances came at a House Government Reform subcommittee hearing chaired by Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn. Since Sept. 11, 2001, elected officials in New York and Connecticut have pressed for better security at the Indian Point facility in Buchanan, N.Y., about 35 miles north of midtown Manhattan.

Recently, evidence in the death penalty trial of al-Qaida member Zacarias Moussaoui showed the terror group considered attacking a nuclear plant in Pennsylvania as part of the 2001 airline hijackings.

Members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told Shays’ subcommittee that the agency has several safety measures in place to reduce the impact of such an attack.

Commissioner Edward McGaffigan Jr. said the nation’s nuclear power system had a contingency plan with U.S. military officials who monitor airspace to get a quick warning if a hijacked airliner is speeding toward a power plant.

“We can put the plant, we think, with the help of (the military), in the safest possible configuration that we can place it, with a little bit of warning,” McGaffigan said. “We’ve had procedures in place, tested procedures in place, to do precisely that so we think the combination … adds up to a very robust capability to protect the public health and safety.”

Due to security concerns, witnesses spoke broadly about nuclear plant safety and avoided discussing specific locations. The NRC does not operate the 65 facilities around the United States but is charged with regulating their safety systems.

Jim Steets, a spokesman for Indian Point’s owner, Entergy Nuclear Northeast, said the facility has tested an emergency response for an incoming airliner.

“We can shut down the plant instantaneously, and there are steps that can be taken to secure a plant in light of that situation that you might not take in a normal shutdown,” he said.

Environmentalists and nearby residents who seek the closure of Indian Point say the impact from a plane could cause a release of radiation.

Phillip Musegaas, a policy analyst for the environmental group Riverkeeper, said shutting the Indian Point complex before an aircraft impact doesn’t make it significantly safer.

“It’s slightly better to have the reactor shut down, but it really makes little difference,” he said. “Whether or not the reactor process is shut down, the hot fuel is still inside the reactor.”

The NRC said in 2004 that a speedy, significant release of radiation is all but impossible at the Indian Point nuclear power station, even if terrorists crash a jetliner into it.

AP-ES-04-04-06 1824EDT