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U.S. accused of failing to secure nuclear plants, wastes

WASHINGTON — The watchdog group Public Citizen is taking the Bush administration to task over inadequate security at the nation's nuclear power plants, including the potential catastrophe from a terrorist attack on spent nuclear fuel — the same waste that some utilities want to store in above-ground casks on Goshute tribal lands in Tooele County.

The report notes that "lightly protected spent-fuel pools are situated outside containment areas" and are subject to terrorist attack. The same holds true for the above-ground casks at the nation's nuclear power plants and potentially those that would be stored in Tooele County far outside any containment area.

Those same concerns have been raised by Utah officials for years.

"Instead of getting straight answers, we get platitudes and feel-good letters," said Dianne Nielson, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. "We are being told there's no problem, that it's safe. But we don't believe that is the case."

Utah officials have argued before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Atomic Safety Licensing Board that spent fuel rods in above-ground casks are an inviting target for terrorist attacks, as is the shipment of the waste from nuclear power plants scattered around the nation.

The nuclear industry insists it has beefed up security at nuclear power plants to the tune of $1 billion since 2001. The number of security officers at 64 plants has risen by 60 percent to 8,000, and "physical improvements at sites include additional protection against vehicle bombs as well as additional protective measures against various types of terrorist threats," according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.

"Those claims have been discredited time and again," added institute spokesman Mitch Singer of the Public Citizen study.

But the Public Citizen report observed that security improvements are a closely guarded secret, and the public has no way of knowing if the improvements are sufficient.

"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has thrown a shroud of secrecy over security deliberations," the report states.

The NRC has assured state officials that security measures in place to protect nuclear power plants would be sufficient to protect nuclear-waste casks in Utah.

The Public Citizen report highlights the potential terrorist threats at nuclear power plants, not the risk of storing the waste in the Utah desert.

But it also highlights the risks of transporting wastes, criticizing the administration's support for a plan to ship nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain, Nev. If enacted, it "would result in tens of thousands of rail and truck shipments of highly radioactive spent fuel — all potential terrorist targets — from reactors to a massive nuclear waste site."

Singer responded that it has been recognized since the 1950s that it is safer to have "one place buried 1,000 feet deep that borders on a military installation" for the nation's stockpile of nuclear waste. "It would be the Fort Knox of nuclear waste storage."

The Nuclear Energy Institute has not taken a position on the proposal to store waste in Utah.

Private Fuel Storage, a consortium of mostly Eastern nuclear power utilities, tired of waiting for the Yucca Mountain facility that is still years away, are awaiting final license approval for a temporary storage site on Goshute lands in Skull Valley.

The plan calls for up to 40,000 tons of highly radioactive waste to be stored in rows of casks on the valley floor about 70 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. The waste could remain above ground for 20 years with the possibility of another 20-year lease after that.

The state has opposed the storage of spent nuclear fuel in Utah but has so far failed in its arguments to block PFS from obtaining the federal license for a temporary waste facility. The license application is still pending, and a ruling on a separate state claim is expected in January.

The state has also failed to stop the project through other avenues of litigation and legislation.

PFS project manager Scott Northard did not return calls.

The Public Citizen report cites one study by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that estimated the loss of tens of thousands of lives within 500 miles, and a Brookhaven National Laboratory report that predicted a contamination of 188 square miles in the event of burning radioactive wastes.

The report also criticizes the Bush administration for its cozy relationship with the nuclear industry, pointing out that Bush and the Republican National Committee have received $19.9 million in campaign contributions from the industry since 2000.

Another study in 2002 by a Washington, D.C., newspaper found the industry spent $51.2 million lobbying Congress. Another $149 million was spent lobbying the White House and executive branch agencies, the study reported.

The result, says Public Citizen, is that "three years after 9/11, Congress still has not enacted any legislation to reduce the terrorist threat at nuclear power plants, and the Bush appointees at the NRC have resisted using their regulatory powers to respond to the terrorism threat.

"For the administration and their close friends in the nuclear industry, the concern that increased security expenses could drive up the cost of nuclear power — and threaten industry profits — apparently trumps national security," it adds.

Not so, the industry responds.

"U.S. nuclear power plants are widely acknowledged by independent experts as the most secure facilities in the nation's industrial infrastructure," according to a Nuclear Energy Institute statement.

And the casks used to store the waste are concrete and rebar that have been tested "time and again" to withstand explosives and airplane crashes.

"Given the tight security around nuclear power plants and the technology of the safety measures, terrorists are going to go after an easier target," Singer said.

The Public Citizen report is available at