“The National Academy of Sciences’ new report on nuclear power plant safety is further proof that nothing can go wrong, can go wrong, can go wrong. Since 9/11, outside experts and critics of Indian Point have frequently observed that the plants in Buchanan are vulnerable to airplane attacks, only to be told, in as many words, to quit hallucinating. Findings by the independent academy support the critics’ fears of possible catastrophic harm and provide fresh fodder for wholly independent evaluations of nuclear plant safety. More than three years after the deadliest terrorist attack on the United States, it is past time for Congress to order such reviews.

In their report to federal lawmakers, scientists with the influential academy concluded that an airplane attack on nuclear facilities like Indian Point “remain a credible threat.” Such attacks would be difficult undertakings, but “certainly no more difficult than the Sept. 11 attacks,” study director Kevin Crowley told reporters earlier this week, after the release of an abbreviated version of the classified report, which was sent to lawmakers in July. The panel said that under certain conditions an airplane attack could lead to a “fire and release of large quantities of radioactive materials to the environment.” The study did not discuss specific scenarios at the nation’s 65 operating and eight shut-down sites, but many fear an attack on Indian Point, which has 20 million neighbors within a 50-mile radius, could be catastrophic because the region’s typically clogged roads and bridges would render any emergency evacuation a deadly exercise in futility. The academy study won’t assuage any of those concerns.

The “Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report” calls for plant-by-plant security assessments of spent nuclear-fuel storage facilities. It also recommends that the reviews consider the “maximum-credible” or worst-case scenario at the facilities, which are given to different designs, implicating different threats. The call for an independent inquiry is a nod to public skepticism of the oversight by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which very often is more industry’s advocate than the public’s. The agency has previously downplayed the likelihood of air attacks and dismissed the need for full-bore analyses of the consequences of such attacks. The scientists’ conclude that the government doesn’t know what it doesn’t know.

The academy noted that, more than three years after 9/11, there “are currently no requirements in place to defend against the kinds of larger-scale, pre-meditated, skillful attacks that were carried out on September 11, 2001.” It said that the more limited threat assessments conducted by the NRC don’t go far enough in examining or quantifying the prevailing risks. “The (academy) prefers a maximum-credible scenario approach for one important reason: It believes that terrorists who choose to attack hardened facilities like spent fuel storage facilities would choose weapons capable of producing maximum destruction,” the report said. That means the terrorists are likely to do their homework. The study added: “The work to date . . . has not been sufficient to adequately understand the vulnerabilities and consequences . . . (of an attack) . . . so that well-informed policy decisions can be made.”

The NRC, while agreeing with many report findings, “respectfully” disagreed that it was unaware of the possible threat. An NRC spokesman repeated the agency’s assertions that stored nuclear material was safe. The same agency, of course, has held that the plants were in compliance with licensing requirements, despite mandated emergency-evacuation plans now routinely disavowed by the officials charged with implementing them. We take their word with a grain of uranium.

Meanwhile, at Indian Point, officials stand by the safety of their plants and speak glowingly of their precautions. It bears mention that the academy report defines “independent” assessment as one “independent of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the nuclear power industry.” And the scientists properly note that plant safety and security are government responsibilities. Toward that end, Congress should waste no more time seeing to it that an independent inquiry is made.”

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