Japan Nuclear Crisis Obscures Greatest Nuclear Energy Threat of All

How quickly we forget. Overlooked, however momentarily, as we follow news of Fukushima, is the other threat that nuclear energy poses besides releasing radiaoactive material in the air or a complete meltdown. A terrorist attack on a nuclear facility, of course. Back in 2003, at the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote:

An attack on a nuclear power plant would seem to fulfill, almost perfectly, Al Qaeda’s objective of using America’s technology against it. In his State of the Union Message last year, President Bush announced that United States forces searching Afghan caves had indeed found diagrams of American reactors. Around the same time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, acting on information provided by the F.B.I., warned of a plot to crash a commercial aircraft into a plant. According to the N.R.C., the identity of the plant was not known; a captured Al Qaeda operative had told the F.B.I. that the specific target was to be chosen by a “team on the ground.”

As potential targets go, Indian Point [nuclear energy plant] seems almost too obvious. It is situated on the Hudson River, in Buchanan, New York, some twenty miles north of the Bronx and thirty-five miles from midtown Manhattan. . . . More than twenty million people live within fifty miles of the plant. A 1982 analysis by a congressional subcommittee estimated that, under worst-case conditions, a catastrophe at one of the Indian Point reactors could result in fifty thousand fatalities and more than a hundred thousand radiation injuries. The same study calculated the cost of such an accident at roughly three hundred billion dollars. By an uncomfortable coincidence, American Airlines Flight 11, just minutes before it slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, flew almost directly over Indian Point’s twin reactor domes. Apparently, the Hudson River was the landmark that the hijackers used to navigate by.

Adding insult to injury, the Indian Point reactors also have some of the worst safety records of any in the United States. As one who lives ten miles down river from Indian Point — which, with maddening irony, occupies one of the sweetest spots on the Hudson — I’m aware that whenever those dual threats fail to cast a pall, however subconscious, over everyday life, I’m in some serious denial.