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About this Article
Written by: Joseph Pilarcyzk
Written on: March 16th, 2002
Tags: security & defense, energy & sustainability
Thumbnail by: Alvinrune/Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
In Fall 2002, Joseph Pilarcyzk, originally from the Bay Area, was a sophomore at the University of Southern California majoring in Computer Engineering. He planned to pursue a career as a talk show host.
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Volume III Issue I > Is Safeguarding America's Nuclear Power Plants Impossible?
Today, nuclear power plants are one of the most common forms of power production. Much of the world today is dependent on nuclear power, despite the inherent danger that radioactive fuel presents. Although nuclear power plants have been engineered for the utmost safety during normal operation, they are still vulnerable to intentional acts of sabotage. For example, a large passenger jet could crash into a nuclear power plant. Because of the amount of fuel present in some jets, the explosion following the crash would almost inevitably lead to a meltdown, exposing millions of people to dangerous radiation. Even though the US government has found diagrams of US nuclear power plants in Afghanistan, which would suggest the possibility of a planned attack, these nuclear reactors have not been strengthened to withstand a great impact or survive such an explosion. A disaster caused by such a plane crash would likely be much worse than Chernobyl; therefore, it is imperative that engineers design new and improved methods of protecting nuclear power plants from an attack that could cause the widespread release of radiation.

Introduction

Ever since the middle of the 20th Century, nuclear power plants have been one of the world's leading sources of power, creating energy by a means that was once thought to be impossible. There are currently 104 nuclear power plants in more than 25 states across the United States that combine to create over 20% of the nation's power. A single nuclear power plant with two reactors working at full capacity can create enough electricity to power over two million homes. This form of generating power has been commended for its emission-free results, and countries all over the world are dependent on nuclear power to illuminate their homes and workplaces. Still, nuclear power has been criticized for its inefficiency, and most importantly in the United States, the security risk it poses to anyone living even remotely near to one of these plants.
Jason Minshull/Wikimedia Commons
Figure 1: Chernobyl nuclear plant, site of the worst nuclear accident.
Nuclear power plants are among mankind's most amazing creations, even in light of the problems they may cause. These plants have been engineered to create immense amounts of electricity while still keeping safety a top priority. Since these plants are almost always operating safely and reliably, the main concern of the new millennium is not with the efficacy of such plants, but rather with the possibility of sabotage from external forces. Specifically, a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant could drastically affect the lives of the citizens living near the plants. Each of the plants contains several hundred thousand tons of radioactive nuclear fuel that, if released, could affect all forms of life within a 100-mile radius. Recall the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl nearly 16 years ago (see Fig. 1), which was due to human error and killed over 4000 people, many of whom lived in close proximity to the plant. One can only imagine the amount of human life at risk if one of these power plants was intentionally sabotaged--which seems possible given the attack on the World Trade Center. Power plants help create electricity that allows us to live our day-to-day lives, but we have to consider and attempt to prevent the possibility that one of these complex engineering wonders could be used as a weapon against us.

The Design of Nuclear Power Plants

Because of the danger posed by the effects of radiation, nuclear power plants have been engineered to maintain containment of the radioactive materials even in the result of a major disaster. However, even though these buildings have complex safety and shutdown procedures, the human element that monitors and controls these machines is crucial--as was proved with the disaster at Chernobyl. Nuclear power plants span thousands of square feet. The nuclear reactor, which actually generates the power, is the heart of the plant. The reactor itself is surrounded by a huge containment system, which is designed to trap the radioactive fuel in the event of a leak or other malfunction. The outside of the containment structure is a concrete wall, which, depending on the design, is around 2-4 feet thick. The inside of the containment structure is highly complex; it consists of high-pressure pipes which both prevent the leak of radioactive fuel and cool down the fuel in the event that the reactor has to be shutdown. The figure below shows the construction of the reactor core with the containment around it and the high-pressure pipes going in and out of the containment structure (Fig. 2).