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Thursday, Sept. 9, 2004 02:35 pm

Not another Clinton nuke

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Two St. Louis men were arrested last month after being seen operating video cameras in the vicinity of City Water, Light and Power's coal-fired generating station. Turns out they were filming ducks on Lake Springfield, but hey, you can't be too careful these days, right?

You can be too careful about some things and not careful enough about others. City Hall is hepped up about homeland security, sponsoring long meetings for things like making sure police and fire departments can use the same radio frequency. Yet Springfield has paid no attention to the security risks posed by living just 50 miles from the Clinton nuclear power plant. Ralph Caldwell, the assistant police chief who spends part of his time as Springfield's director of homeland security, said he hasn't had time to worry beyond the city limits. "There is nothing in my own plans that addresses what would happen if the nuclear power plant at Clinton blows up," Caldwell says. "But it's not a bad idea. I will pencil that down."

The danger at a nuclear plant is not so much that it would blow up -- unless somebody blows it up -- but that the core would lose coolant and melt down. That nearly happened at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, and did happen at Chernobyl, in the old Soviet Union, in 1986. In the worst-case scenario, the containment would be breached, releasing deadly radiation over a large area. A national group advocating better security recently called facilities like Clinton "predeployed weapons of mass destruction," recognizing their potential as terrorist targets. But when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) held a hearing in Clinton in December on the need for a second reactor, nobody from Springfield said a word.

The NRC has required some security improvements at all the nation's 104 nuclear power reactors since the 9/11 attacks, but it hasn't acted with the urgency the situation demands. "We haven't seen any changes in their mentality," says David Kraft of the Evanston-based Nuclear Energy Information Service, which acts as a citizen watchdog over the 11 reactors operating in Illinois. "They say they take action, but when we get to the details we find that it's a big smokescreen. There would be little defense against a group of determined intruders, and no defense against the crash of an airliner."

The NRC recently decided to step up "force on force" tests, drills in which a mock terrorist attack is staged. In earlier tests, security failed about half the time. This time, the company hired by the nuclear industry to stage the attacks is the same one that provides security at half the nuclear plants, "a blatant conflict of interest," according to the Project on Government Oversight. A Pennsylvania group complained in July that the NRC still hasn't acted on its request made Sept. 12, 2001 to require armed guards at nuclear plant entrances. A spokeswoman for the NRC told the Wall Street Journal it isn't unusual for such petitions for rulemaking to take a long time. In response to mounting criticism that it isn't doing enough to improve safety and security, the NRC announced last month that it will no longer make public the security gaps it discovers at nuclear power plants. The reason, it said, is to prevent terrorists from using the information, but critics see it as one more attempt to hide the industry's weaknesses.

Now comes Chicago-based Exelon Corp., which is seeking the first new construction permit for a nuclear power plant in the U.S. since the near-disaster at Three Mile Island 25 years ago. Exelon says it's not sure it wants to build, but it's applying for permission just in case. The NRC has a new "early site permit" process that allows a company to "bank" its building permit for up to 20 years. The uncertainty over whether Clinton II is real takes away some urgency, but now is the time to get involved. A draft environmental impact statement is due late this year, with a public hearing probably in February. Sometime before it decides on the early site permit, the NRC will issue a "safety evaluation report" to include emergency planning, and hold another public hearing. The schedule will be posted at www.nrc.gov.

What isn't on the schedule is a time for debate on the larger issues. Is it wise to restart an industry that leaves behind radioactive waste that must be isolated from the environment for thousands of years? Is it good public policy to build more terrorist targets? Is it smart to spend billions on a new nuclear plant when that money could develop cleaner alternatives like wind, solar, efficiency, and clean coal? These questions won't be on the agenda. But when hearings resume in Clinton next year maybe people from Springfield will show up and ask them anyway.

In the mid-1970s Fletcher Farrar reported on Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearings for the original Clinton nuclear power plant.

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