Nuclear waste stockpile unlikely terror target : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Published Sunday, October 28, 2001


Experts: SRS unlikely terror target Tight security measureswould make sabotage,raids difficult to conduct

By HENRY EICHEL Columbia Bureau COLUMBIA -- Although it guards the most potent cache of radioactive material in the United States - plus undisclosed quantities of bomb-grade uranium and plutonium - the Savannah River Site 150 miles southwest of Charlotte is an unlikely target for terrorists, experts say.

"I would think terrorists could have much more of an impact doing other things," said Clemson University environmental engineering professor Robert Fjeld, who studies radiation protection.

"There are much more vulnerable targets."

He and others cite several reasons:

There aren't any bombs there for someone to set off, only material that could be used for bombs.

Stealing the materials to make a bomb would require a highly trained, heavily armed military unit that could storm the facility and then somehow escape.

Crashing a large airplane into a buried tank of liquid nuclear waste to spew deadly radioactivity into the atmosphere would be far more difficult than hitting the World Trade Center or the Pentagon.

Even if that happened, experts say, it's debatable whether the radioactivity would travel far enough to harm a large number of people.

"I would say, from all the information I have, that the risk of a catastrophic terrorist incident at Savannah River is very low," said Fred Wehling of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. The center is devoted to research on stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Although residents of nearby Aiken have called it the bomb plant since it was built 50 years ago, Savannah River's business during the Cold War wasn't making bombs. Rather, the site was the U.S. government's only supplier of weapons-grade plutonium for bombs.

The plutonium was then shipped to weapons plants in Texas, Colorado and elsewhere.

The collapse of the Soviet Union ended that role. Savannah River's five production reactors have been shut down for about 10 years. Work there now is focused on cleaning up decades of accumulated radioactive waste.

An unlikely scenario The highest potential risk of harm to people outside the site is posed by 34million gallons of radioactive chemical sludge and salts left over from plutonium manufacturing. While plutonium itself is deadly only if it's inhaled or swallowed, the chemical waste emits intense radiation capable of causing cancer to anyone in the immediate vicinity.

The 51 steel tanks, lined with concrete and each holding 1.3million gallons of waste, are concentrated in two tank farms several miles apart on the 315-square-mile government-owned land. They are either buried or surrounded with earthen berms. In either case, the tanks' only visible part is a concrete cap.

Work began in the mid-1990s to remove the waste from the tanks and turn it into glass logs for safer permanent storage. But the process will take at least 20 more years. So for the time being, terrorists could conceivably turn Savannah River's chemical waste into a deadly weapon.

"If one of those tanks were exploded and the material were lifted into the air, obviously there would be some disastrous on-site consequences" for the almost 14,000 people who work there, said Tom Clements, executive director of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington.

Even though the waste isn't flammable, a raging jet fuel fire might cause some radioactivity to be drawn up into the smoke plume, affecting people miles away, said Brian Costner, a former Department of Energy senior policy adviser who once ran the Columbia-based watchdog group Energy Research Foundation.

But Costner said he thinks such a scenario is unlikely.

"The World Trade Center towers poked way up in the air," he said. "In order to get something that is essentially buried means crashing directly into the ground."

Hard to get to Officials at the site acknowledge plutonium and highly enriched uranium there could be fashioned into bombs by people with the know-how. But SRS officials say it would be very difficult for anyone to get their hands on it.

"It's stored in very secure areas with armed guards and in vaults," said Savannah River spokesman Jim Giusti.

Some critics argue security at Savannah River and other Department of Energy nuclear facilities is inadequate. A former DOE security consultant last month said in letter to a Senate committee that the guards at nuclear weapons depots lose over half the time in exercises with mock assailants.

But other experts say the criticisms are overblown.

"Mock attacks point out weaknesses and show that, in theory, somebody could get in," Costner said.

Also, Costner said, "If you're a terrorist trying to get your hands on plutonium to make a bomb, Savannah River is probably one of the last places on your list to go try to find it. The former Soviet Union and some other countries are going to be much easier sources."

-- Martin Thompson (, October 28, 2001

Moderation questions? read the FAQ