Rep. Markey Misses the Mark on Nuclear Safety

DATE: November 30, 2001

BACKGROUND: Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) has made misleading statements regarding the resistance of U.S. nuclear power plants to terrorist attacks. Rebuttal statements come from a National Center for Public Policy Research paper written by nuclear scientists Gerald E. Marsh and George S. Stanford and an interview with Gerald Marsh.

Rep. Markey: “Recent studies have concluded that an aircraft attack on spent nuclear fuel could have the same impact as a ten kiloton nuclear bomb…”

Scientists: “If the dry-storage facility were directly hit by the jetliner, a few [fuel storage] casks might be broken, but the ensuring fire could not disperse a large amount of radioactivity.”

Rep. Markey: “These facilities are extremely vulnerable, and yet the consequences of a terrorist attack that successfully breaches the spent nuclear fuel storage casks could release enough radioactive material to make entire communities uninhabitable for years…”

Scientists: “Perhaps the shock wave [of an explosion would] lift some radioactive debris out of the [fuel storage] pool and scatter it near the building. Jet fuel [could] run into the [fuel storage] pool and burn. The fire [would not be] hot enough even to melt the reactor fuel pelletsNo significant irradiation of members of the public would be expected, the most serious consequences [would] probably be anxiety and possibly panic.”

Rep. Markey: “If an aircraft were to crash into a double enveloped containment structure [which surrounds all nuclear reactors] the subsequent vaporization and ignition of the resulting vapor-air mixture could lead to a rather violent explosion environment…”

Scientists: “At [the reactor accident at] Chernobyl there was a steam explosion, but it took a persistent graphite fire to inject the radioactivity into the atmosphere Western power reactors do not use graphite – there can be no fire, and without a fire there is no plausible way to put such a large amount of radioactivity into the atmosphere…”

Rep. Markey: “If only one percent of the fuel, say 500 lb for a FB-111 fighter plane, is involved in such an event, the blast environment will be equivalent to the detonation of approximately 1,000 lb of TNT.”

Scientists: “The burning jet fuel would scarcely aggravate the situation-it would be distributed over a considerable area, and would burn off well before the molten reactor fuel penetrated the reactor vessel.”

Rep. Markey: “Nuclear power plants were not specifically designed to withstand such [airplane] crashes.”

Scientists: “While the containment vessels [which surround all nuclear reactors] have not been specifically designed to withstand the impact of a large aircraft, that does not mean a containment vessel would collapse upon attack. Quite the contrary -­ the situation is like a thrown egg hitting a brick wall.”

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: The National Policy Analysis paper “Terrorism and Nuclear Power: What are the Risks?,” published by the National Center for Public Policy Research, can be found online at Gerald Marsh is a physicist who served with the U.S. START delegation and was a consultant to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations on strategic nuclear policy and technology for many years. He is an advisory board member of The National Center for Public Policy Research’s John P. McGovern, MD Center for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs. George Stanford is a nuclear reactor physicist, now retired from Argonne National Laboratory after a career of experimental work pertaining to power-reactor safety.

Representative Markey’s statements come from two press releases:

Representative Ed Markey, “Markey Calls Security of Spent Nuclear Fuel Vulnerable,” Press Release, November 19, 2001, downloaded from on November 20, 2001.

Representative Ed Markey, “Markey: NRC Has Been Evasive About Aircraft Threats to Nuclear Power Plants,” Press Release, October 25, 2001, downloaded from on November 20, 2001.

by Chris Burger, Program Coordinator
John. P. McGovern, MD Center for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs
The National Center for Public Policy Research

Contact the author at: 202-507-6398 or [email protected]
The National Center for Public Policy Research
777 N. Capitol Street, N.E. Suite 803
Washington, D.C. 20001

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