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Are U.S. Nuclear Sites Safe?

Are U.S. Nuclear Sites Safe?While no one ever planned for terrorist attacks of the magnitude of Sept. 11, the Tufts graduate responsible for the country's nuclear plants says they are well protected. Washington, D.C.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [11.07.01] Like most of the country's infrastructure, U.S. nuclear power plants were designed to withstand a host of different attacks. But few people dreamed of an assault of the magnitude and scope of those from Sept. 11. In his first interviews since the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, Richard Meserve -- a Tufts graduate and Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- answered the question so many Americans have been asking: How safe are the nation's 103 nuclear power plants?

"I can say that nuclear power plants are built with very heavy and robust structures," Meserve told PBS' NewsHour With Jim Lehrer last week. "They have thick walls of reinforced concrete. They have redundant safety equipment."

But the morning of Sept. 11, raised many new considerations.

"This was a wake up call -- Sept. 11 -- for all of us about the kind of world we live in and the threats that exist," the Tufts graduate told PBS.

According to ABC News, airplane attacks were anticipated by nuclear plant designers.

"In 1998, a company that builds nuclear plants did an experiment," reported ABC News. "They crashed an old fighter jet into a block of concrete. The plane was pulverized. The concrete was barely scarred."

But a 747 full of fuel was not part of the plans, Meserve told the news networks.

"This was viewed as a very improbable event to occur, and so it wasn't one of the design criteria," he told PBS. "In that, we're similar to most other infrastructure in the United States: The White House, the Pentagon, the capitol, chemical plants, refineries also were not designed to withstand an aircraft attack of the type that we saw on Sept. 11."

Meserve has already ordered a full review of plant safety across the country. He said he's confident the plants are well protected, but his commission isn't taking any chances.

Airspace above the country's 103 nuclear power facilities is closed and increased security measures are in place.

"We have a very serious presence at all of our nuclear plants today," the Tufts graduate told ABC News.

As targets, the plants are not that easy to hit, Meserve told the New York Times.

"Meserve said that various improvements had been made since Sept. 11, but he added that reactors were smaller than either the World Trade Center towers or the Pentagon and, thus, more difficult to crash into," reported the Times.

"It would not be a trivial thing to have a kamikaze attack," Meserve told the Times. "But, it's a lot harder to hit than the World Trade Center."

In the event of an attempted attack, Meserve said the plants are well equipped to respond quickly and avoid endangering the public.

"There are features of nuclear power plants that are very favorable in terms of their capacity to respond to such an event without there being an undue public hazard," he said.

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