Thompson Interview Transcript, 2002

Transcript of interview with Dr. Gordon Thompson, a physicist, engineer, and expert in the field of safety and environmental issues related to nuclear facilities including terrorism follows:

TV Show Transcript:


ANNOUNCER: The purpose of this program is to explore some very important questions: "Is Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant as safe as it can be? Are there simple ways to make the existing facility safer? Are there simple ways to make PG&E's proposed storage site for high level nuclear waste safer than the design they have proposed? And most importantly, are there ways to help insure that we don't become a victim of terrorism like that of September 11, 2001?"

NEIL TARDIFF: Hello and welcome to NukSAFE. My name is Neil Tardiff, and I'm an attorney in San Luis Obispo. I'll be your host, and lead you through a series of interview segments with Dr. Gordon Thompson. He is not only a physicist and an engineer, but also an expert in the field of safety and environmental issues related to nuclear facilities, including terrorism. He is the executive director of the Institute For Resource And Security Studies, and his past experience includes a wide range of advisory roles. He has worked with government agencies like the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Department Of Energy, the United Nations, the World Bank, the Government of Ireland, the Canadian Senate, the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office... these are just a few. If you are interested, you can review the full list for yourself on our web site. Remember, as we embark on this journey of thoughts and insights, that we are not merely here to scare you, or cause panic. Rather we are here for a more constructive purpose; to share with you the facts... the perspectives of an expert... and to instill in you the reality that we can be safer. It is not an opinion, as you will see for yourself, it is a fact. and, we will share with you how, together, we can make it happen. We open with some background on the design of our current nuclear facilities, and the ongoing policies of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the area of safety.


GORDON THOMPSON: Civilian reactors we have such as Diablo Canyon are essentially modified submarine propulsion reactors. They were not designed from the beginning with a view to an extremely high degree of safety, or a high degree of protection against malicious acts. They were lifted out of submarines essentially and made bigger, and the safety devices have been added on ad hoc over the years as safety problems have developed. Several decades ago interveners in licensing proceedings did put forward arguments that these plants were not resistant to acts of malice. In particular some interveners argued that a nuclear plant in Florida might be subject to attack by missiles from Cuba. The response of the NRC was to say that no nuclear plant must be designed or operated to resist enemy action. This was a deliberate policy choice made many many years ago by the NRC.

NEIL TARDIFF: Obviously, this policy could have only been established during an era when no one believed that critical targets within the boundaries of the continental United States were at risk of enemy attack. But now we enter the era of post 9/11 thinking. An era where those awful sounds of the twin towers collapsing should have awoke us from our naivete. but is that the case?


GORDON THOMPSON: The overall security picture of nuclear sites now is of a very lightly defended site, the guard forces by military standards are a very lightly armed small force. The barriers put up against vehicle bombs or other modes of attack are rather lightweight barriers. There is no defense at all against air attack. There is no defense of significance at water located plants against boat-bomb attack, and the guard force is not prepared to deal with an attacking force with heavy weapons or lethal chemical weapons or with multi-phase attacks such as a sequential attack with two vehicle bombs in succession. And yet we know from the events of September 11th that phased suicidal attacks, sophisticated attacks by large groups of people are possible, they have been demonstrated. So the NRC's regulations are not capable at present of dealing with a threat approaching the Sept 11th standard, let alone a more severe attack which is certainly within the realm of capability of Al Qaeda or potentially many other groups.

NEIL TARDIFF: So what exactly is behind the barriers at Diablo Canyon that this "lightly armed small force" is guarding? Dr. Thompson gives us an overview.

Behind The Barriers

GORDON THOMPSON: Diablo Canyon has two reactors and each reactor has a spent fuel pool. Each reactor and each spent fuel pool contains very large amounts of radioactive material. Highly dangerous radioactive material. There is a proposal to develop a dry storage facility on the site. Similarly if constructed that would contain very large amounts of radioactive material. This radioactivity is contained in spent fuel, the structure of which is made of zirconium metal, which is a flammable metal. In the reactor there are many tons of hot water and steam and very high levels of radioactive decay heat. So that, if the reactor is damaged it can rapidly melt, and if there is a breach in the containment building, then large amounts of radioactive material can pour out of the building in a cloud. The spent fuel pools, if water is lost from them, will catch fire, and produce a cloud of smoke that will create a plume drifting downwind for many many miles.

NEIL TARDIFF: What does all this mean to us, the people of San Luis Obispo county who live and work in the area around Diablo Canyon? How do we assess the hazards?


GORDON THOMPSON: The danger to people off site is from the radioactive plume that is carried downwind. This plume will be invisible very soon after it leaves the plant and could be detected only through instruments. The plume will contain gases that continue traveling downwind and eventually will get diluted into the atmosphere. The plume will also contain tiny particles which will settle onto the ground and onto other surfaces and these will emit gamma rays bathing people in a sea of radiation much like standing permanently in front of an Xray machine. Also this material will be taken up into the water supply and will contaminate the food supply, and people consuming contaminated food and water will receive internal radiation. And this radiation can have short term and long term affects. The plume coming out of a reactor will contain very large amount of comparatively short lived radioactivity. If a person is caught in that plume for a long period they may receive a high enough dose to suffer death or serious illness within the first few weeks. People further away who do not suffer that experience nevertheless are at risk of suffering cancer many many years later.

NEIL TARDIFF: In many of Dr. Thompson's studies of nuclear facilities, he identifies the spent fuel pool as the biggest concern. It is not protected by the kind of hardened containment that the reactor itself is provided, yet it contains more radioactive material.

Spent Fuel Pool Fire

GORDON THOMPSON: In a spent fuel pool in normal operation when water is present, the fuel is not especially hot. The water is not boiling so the temperature of the fuel will be somewhere well below the boiling point of water. If water is lost from a pool the fuel will heat up until it reaches a temperature of 1000 degrees Celsius or more, whereupon it will ignite. And that fire will slowly spread throughout the pool. In reactor accidents similarly high temperatures are experienced and the radioactivity, in some cases literally boiled out. The cesium isotopes, for example, just simply boiled out as a vapor and then condensed into tiny particles that traveled downwind.

NEIL TARDIFF: We all remember the tragedy in 1986 at Chernobyl. Most of the off site radiation exposure in that incident could be linked to the release of cesium 137 into the atmosphere. Studies done by the NRC concluded that in a spent fuel pool fire, 100% of the cesium 137 would be released. It is estimated that the pools at Diablo Canyon currently hold about 20 times the amount of cesium 137 released at Chernobyl. To say that we are all at risk is greatly understating the problem. We all hope and pray that we are never faced with anything so catastrophic as this in our lifetimes. Perhaps that's why Dr. Thompson describes an attack on a nuclear facility of the scale of September 11th as "the unthinkable"


GORDON THOMPSON: The unthinkable in this context is a determined and destructive act of malice and insanity at Diablo Canyon. And this could be at the reactor, one of the two reactors, or one of the two spent fuel pools, or the proposed dry storage facility, or potentially more than one facility at the same time. The mode of attack might be from the air, by a large aircraft relying on the impact energy and the burning fuel or it could be a small aircraft loaded with high explosive, or the attack could be by land intruder, or intruders arriving from the sea in the case of Diablo Canyon. And it's perfectly feasible to imagine attackers prepared to overcome the present security force which is, in a military sense, a very light defense.

NEIL TARDIFF: If you are like many people, you may be reacting at first with thoughts like: wait a minute, it's been a year since the attacks on New York and Washington, hasn't our government done everything possible to protect us? Do you remember Gordon's earlier statement about the NRC's policy "that no nuclear plant must be designed or operated to resist enemy action." Well, that hasn't changed. No matter how apparent the need may be to you and me, that hasn't changed.


GORDON THOMPSON: If one is concerned about the threat to nuclear power plants, there are a variety of options for dealing with this threat. One option would be to immediately close all of the reactors, at the sacrifice of 20% of the nations electricity. However that would not reduce the threat posed by the spent fuel, it's going to be stored at these sites for many many years in the future. So it would still be necessary to defend all of these sites for many years in the future to protect the spent fuel. Also there are options short of shutting down the reactors that would improve their defense. I have argued repeatedly that the federal government should be studying this issue systematically, that they should identify the vulnerabilities, identify a range of options for defending the plants more strongly, and that they should engage with the public in debating this issue. And, over time a political judgment could be made. This judgment might come down in favor of shutting down the reactors, or it might come down in favor of continuing to operate them with a higher level of defense. But at least then some sort of rational process of debate would have been gone through, and there would be some democratically accountable decision. What we have now is a pretense that there is no problem. We have a pretense of public participation in hearing processes. The sort of discussion that's needed of improving defense is simply not allowed in any NRC licensing process. So the issue cannot be debated. The NRC refuses to discuss alternative options for defending nuclear plants.

NEIL TARDIFF: How long do you want to wait? Just recently in the news there was a story about how a team of journalists tested 10 airports including the Santa Barbara airport. They were able to board flights with weapons, just like the terrorists of more than a year ago. Perhaps we need to start now, and talk openly about some of the things they don't want to hear.

Defense In Depth

GORDON THOMPSON: There are essentially 4 layers of defense that you could provide. Multilayer defense is typically called defense in depth which is a well known military term and it's a term that's also been used in nuclear safety. And for a plant like Diablo Canyon the first layer would be site security where you are trying to keep attackers away from plant. The second would be increasing the robustness of the facility to resist attack. The third level would be damage control to try to prevent a release of radioactive material if there had been an attack. And the forth would be off site emergency response to protect the public if a release does occur from the site. And at present the limited security measures that the NRC does require are all in the first level site security, there are no NRC measures being considered at present to improve the robustness of the facilities. There are a few limited measures of damage control being required by the NRC, but nothing approaching what is possible or I believe is necessary. And off site emergency planning is present but has numerous deficiencies and the exercises are typically not very rigorous.

NEIL TARDIFF: I'd like to quote a statement issued by the Atomic Safety Licensing Board in 1982. They said: "...reactors could not be effectively protected against military style attacks without turning them into virtually impregnable fortresses at much higher cost. Thus, applicants are not required to design against such things as artillery bombardments, missiles with nuclear warheads, or kamikaze dives by large airplanes, despite the fact that such attacks would damage and may destroy a commercial reactor.". Much higher cost? What would it cost if we had a disaster 20 times the size of Chernobyl?


GORDON THOMPSON: People in the nuclear industry and in the NRC have alleged that it would be prohibitively expensive to make the facilities more robust, to make nuclear power plants, spent fuel pools, dry storage facilities more robust against attack. They actually have no technical basis for this argument because they have not done any systematic studies to identify more stringent design options or to evaluate their costs. And there is much that can be done at comparatively modest cost. And there is also a very large downside risk in terms of the economic damage to the public from a release of radioactive material. So deciding what is or is not an appropriate expense has to be set against the potential magnitude of the consequences. My top priority in making a site like Diablo Canyon more robust, would be to re-equip the spent fuel pools with low density racks. This is how they were built in the first place, and they should be re-equipped with the low density racks, and the spent fuel that could no longer fit in these racks would have to be transferred to another facility on the site. I would recommend that that facility be a dry storage facility, but one much more robust than what PG&E currently plans.

NEIL TARDIFF: In this current licensing application, if they aren't allowing discussion of the safety of the spent fuel pools, what are they focusing on? Dry cask storage. But as always, there's a catch. They only want to look at the functionality and safety of the casks within their defined limits, which, you guessed it, don't even consider the aspect of an attack by a foreign enemy.

Dry Cask Storage

GORDON THOMPSON: Fuel has been stored dry in a number of installations in the US and in Europe for many years now and done successfully. Dry storage done in this manner is a much safer option than storage in a spent fuel pool because in the spent fuel pool there is a very large concentration of spent fuel that will all ignite if water is lost from the pool. In the dry cask storage system the casks are separate so if the cask is damaged the affect would be felt only on the fuel in that particular cask. The Diablo Canyon casks are intended to hold 32 fuel assemblies, whereas the pool is now ready to hold more than a thousand fuel assemblies. However a dry cask facility is susceptible to attack and there are several means of attack that could liberate large amounts of radioactive material from a cask. So dry cask storage is safer than pool storage, but still contains a lot of radioactive material that could be liberated in an attack. And, I have recommended for Diablo Canyon and for other sites that the dry storage facility be defended or its design be such that it is more secure against attack. And this would be achieved through three design methods. Firstly, using heavy all metal casks rather than the concrete casks that PG&E plans to use. Secondly by dispersing the casks over a wider area as opposed to the arrangement that PG&E proposes where the casks would be 6 feet apart up to 140 of them on a pad. And thirdly to provide a bunker or berm, which is a pile of gravel, to give further protection to each cask or small group of casks.

NEIL TARDIFF: So in the opinion of Dr. Thompson, dry cask storage, if handled in the best manner, could reduce risk by decreasing the amount of fuel stored in the pools. In addition, risk at the new storage facility could be minimized as well. But is this a part of their plan? No. Is it even being discussed? No. Is this the time when we can afford to take risks? No, probably not.

Malicious Acts

GORDON THOMPSON: There is a history of malicious acts at nuclear power plants around the world, by outside people and inside people both. There have been numerous instances in which safety systems have been sabotaged by insiders, they could not have been sabotaged by any other person, and there have been instances of significant attack, for example in France, a reactor under construction was attacked with anti-tank missiles, two decades ago, and the attack penetrated the containment. It's a mistake to think of just one type of entity as the enemy. Al Qaeda is the enemy of the moment, but the Oklahoma federal building was attacked by a right wing militia American citizen. Japan has spawned a major terrorist group in Aum Shinrikyo. We have no idea where the next international terrorist group is going to come from. We certainly cannot assume that it would be Al Qaeda. Moreover, we need to think in a strategic sense, as well. For example, as we speak the United States government is contemplating an attack on Iraq, a preemptive attack that we know would be widely unpopular in the arab world, and with many other nations around the world. And in this case the attack would be on a sovereign nation that possesses the resources of a nation, including many well educated scientists and engineers. And there could be great sympathy for this regime if it chose to make a counter attack in the homeland of the United States, for example, an attack on a nuclear power plant as a response to an attack upon itself. There is at present no serious thinking in the United States government about preparing for such a situation. Nowhere in the debate about the merits of attacking Iraq has there been any sensible discussion about the vulnerability of the United States homeland to counter attack, and there have been no preparations to increase the defense of nuclear power plants.

What Can We Do?

NEIL TARDIFF: How many times have you heard our president say that his first priority is the security of the American people? Could it be any more obvious that, regardless of what he says, the federal government is not acting on our behalf to protect us from the possibility of grave harm to the fullest extent of their capabilities. But it is not our system of democracy that is failing us... no, our system has not been brought into play. Our system is based on the people of America speaking out, sometimes loudly, and their will becomes the new rule of the system. We need new rules. And we need them now. We can get them by working together. By now you've seen the phone number on the screen, you've seen the web site. All that is left is for you to act. You need to make your wishes known. Our voice needs to grow in strength to be as loud as the voice of the big business that is profiting from the old rules. We can supply you with all the information you need to contact your government at all levels. They all need to hear from us. They are our public servants, not the servants of the industry that is putting us at risk. Our central coast is a beautiful place, and it could never be replaced. It is fragile. It is precious. Just like our loved ones. Just like ourselves.

NRC Failing In Its Mission

ANNOUNCER: This is the NRC's mission statement: NRC's primary mission is to protect the public health and safety, and the environment from the effects of radiation from nuclear reactors, materials, and waste facilities.... The Senate committee on governmental affairs, headed by Senator Joe Lieberman, requested a general accounting office study of the NRC focused on three key outcomes related to industry safety. The findings of that report, published June 29, 2001 said in 2 out 3 areas of safety: "because it is regulating a mature industry, NRC has strategies, measures, and targets to maintain the status quo rather than to demonstrate progress related to safety..." We find this policy unacceptable, and believe it is time for people to speak out and call for appropriate action now by our government.