Analysis Gulf Coast

South Texas Project One Of The Most Vulnerable U.S. Nuclear Reactors

South Texas Project nuclear complex

The Feds are considering worst-case disaster scenarios. Reporters should too.

Greg Harman

Years ago I had a semi-public disagreement (as much as Twitter snipes can be considered “public”) with another SA writer about what I considered the San Antonio Express-News‘ failure to consider worst-case radiological-release scenarios during the proposed (and since failed) expansion of the South Texas Project nuclear complex on the Texas Gulf Coast.

We gave a lot of ink to the subject at the San Antonio Current  to make up for that oversight — starting with sharing elements of the 9/11 Commission report published in the summer of 2004 that stated that al Qaeda operatives had originally planned to hijack 10 planes and target nuclear power plants in their suicide missions.

While U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials insisted that such an attack would fail to cause any significant damage, I wrote at the time that NRC employees were also “quietly pulling a 1982 report by Argonne National Laboratories out of the public document room.” Later restored as a public document, the Argonne study shows that aircraft hazards are typically ‘low risk events,’ however a jetliner could knock out electrical power at pressurized water reactors like those at STP and “leave the plant vulnerable to core melt.'”

Finally, I wrote, “A study by Sandia Labs published by the U.S. House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs found that a worst-case scenario meltdown at STP would result in 18,000 ‘early’ deaths, 10,000 injuries, and 4,000 additional cases of cancer within 30 years of the accident. The cost of such an attack in terms of poisoned property was tallied between $104 billion and $112 billion — about $190 billion in today’s dollars — though the fiscal analysis did not include ‘the cost of providing health care to the affected population, all onsite costs, litigation costs, direct costs of health effects, and indirect costs.'”

These were three key findings not shared widely in any other San Antonio media that I was aware of at the time.

A paper released last week by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs shows that reporting was dead-on.

The paper, “Protecting U.S. Nuclear Facilities from Terrorist Attack: Re-assessing the Current ‘Design Basis Threat’ Approach,” by Lara Kirkham and Alan Kuperman, found that STP — thanks to its unprotected seaside location — is at the top of the list of U.S. nuclear plants at risk from terrorist attack.

“Existing US nuclear power plants were designed to withstand extreme environmental
events like hurricanes and earthquakes, but their design analysis did not consider deliberate attacks using fuel-laden airliners,” the report states. “Also somewhat contradictory, the NRC has required that all future power reactors be designed to mitigate attacks by commercial aircraft, but has not required existing reactors to make retrofits to address that threat.”

Terrorists could most easily target critical parts of U.S. nuclear reactors that are adjacent to bodies of water, the paper continues. “The operator of one nuclear power plant rejected an offer by the Department of Homeland Security to install free barriers for protection against waterborne threats, apparently based on the costs of maintaining the barriers.”

CBS News reported the paper by saying:

While all 107 commercial nuclear power reactors were thought to be vulnerable, the report spotlighted 11 that were most at risk. That included eight reactors that were deemed unprotected from attacks from the sea: Diablo Canyon in California, St. Lucie in Florida, Brunswick in North Carolina, Surry in Virginia, Indian Point in New York, Millstone in Connecticut, Pilgrim in Massachusetts, and the South Texas Project.

But U.S. reactors are not the only ones that have caught the eye of potential terrorists. Also targeted have been plants in “Argentina, Russia, Lithuania, Western Europe, South Africa, and South Korea” the report states.

“Radiological sabotage of a nuclear power reactor could have devastating consequences
for public health, the environment, and the economy,” the report continues. “Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analyzed the consequences of a hypothetical terrorist attack
on the Indian Point nuclear power plant located thirty-five miles from New York City. An attack that resulted in a core meltdown and a large radiological release to the environment could cause 44,000 short-term deaths and 500,000 long-term deaths from radiation. He estimated economic damages at $2 trillion.”

The ongoing disaster at Fukushima shows these are issues not only for their local communities, but matters for the world at large. Leaks — including the most recent 300-ton leak — at Fukushima have already added to the ocean’s cesium load remaining from the open-air atomic testing of the 20th century. Plans have been floated for months to dilute the remaining wastewaster and flush it into the Pacific over the objection of the Japanese fishing community.

Meanwhile, a much larger underground plume of contaminated groundwater is fast approaching the sea, according to The Washington Post.


Those who are interested can check out the entire Nukes of Hazard series.