First, take a look at this video. It’s film of a test run by the Department of Energy in the 1990s. The DOE wanted to see if the containment structure of a nuclear reactor could withstand the direct hit of an airplane. They strapped an F-4 Phantom jet to a track and revved it up to 500 mph. You can see the result. It might make you feel a little better about the possibility of a hijacked airliner crashing into a nuclear plant.
So does such a test settle the matter? No. You underestimate the anti-nuclear movement. The job of nuclear opponents is to think of any wild scenario that comes into their heads, even if they have no idea what they’re talking about, and then require everyone to prove them wrong. For instance, after witnessing the above test, nuclear opponents inevitably respond, “Yes, but that was only a little fighter plane. If a big airliner crashed into a reactor, the result would be different.”
No it wouldn’t. It’s the laws of physics. The amount of energy generated by a moving object is defined by E = ½ mv2, where E is energy, m is the mass of the object, and v is the velocity. If the mass or weight of a jet airliner were three times the mass of the F-4, that would increase the energy of impact. But the velocity is more important, since it is squared (multiplied by itself). A jet liner that tried to fly at 500 mph in the lower atmosphere would have its wings torn off. The most it can make is about 350 mph. Then there’s the matter of hitting a target. When a jetliner hits the end of an airport runway, it’s only traveling at about 100 mph. At 500 mph it would be impossible to achieve any accuracy. In any case, the airliner would still barely make a dent. The reinforced concrete could easily withstand it.
Is that the end of the story? Unfortunately, no. Right now 1,500 construction workers are preparing the ground in Burke County, Georgia, to build two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors, the first new plants begun in this country since 1976. The project has received $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees toward its estimated $14.6 billion cost.
But it appears the project may not go ahead on schedule. Why? Because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission still has not approved the design of the AP1000. Four of these reactors are being built in China, the first scheduled to begin operation in 2012, but we still haven’t decided if it’s safe to go ahead.
The NRC actually approved the design of the AP1000 back in 2005. Then anti-nuclear groups began beating the drums. What happens if a hijacked airliner crashes into it? The 1990s test was completely forgotten. The NRC mulled the matter awhile and told Westinghouse to go back and try to design some kind of anti-aircraft device.
Westinghouse went back and elevated a concrete-and-steel protection shield so it would hover over the reactor. They submitted again in 2009. NRC took one look and said, “Hey, that thing looks like it might fall down in an earthquake.” It rejected the Westinghouse design. That’s where things stand now. This week the NRC added another concern, Westinghouse “fail[ed] to adequately consider the effects of an airline strike that hits an annex building, penetrates another structure and heads toward an equipment hatch.” Westinghouse will consider the problem.
Environmental groups have persuaded a large portion of the bureaucracy to operate under the “precautionary principle” — the idea that if there’s any doubt whatsoever that something might not work, don’t do it at all. Unfortunately, the precautionary principle itself has its problems. If you never do anything for fear of what might happen, you may find yourself with an aging industrial complex while the rest of the world spurts ahead to newer and better technologies. That’s where we’re headed now.