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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Beware of Robust Responses

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WASHINGTON -- There's a word I've grown wary of, and that word is "robust." It comes up all the time in post-Sept. 11 discussions of security. When you hear it, substitute "unsafe," because it usually signifies a public official in denial.

When America's nuclear bureaucrats were asked how safe our reactors are from terrorists, of course they reached for the opaque "robust." Nuclear power plants aren't safe from terrorists -- not at all. For starters, a jumbo jet driven into either a reactor containment building or into a spent fuel pool is a Pennsylvania-sized problem.

So here is how the Nuclear Regulatory Commission finessed that: "Spent fuel pools at nuclear power plants are extremely robust structures." "Prestressed concrete containments -- typically four to five feet thick -- are so robust that it is unlikely that a jumbo jet could penetrate the containment structure."

Not even the nuclear industry trade group was quite so shameless. Their statement issued after Sept. 11 said, "Nuclear power plant containment buildings, in which the reactors are located, are extremely robust" -- but carefully added the buildings were "designed to withstand the impact of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and airborne objects up to a certain force. (emphasis added).

Even the NRC eventually conceded that reactor containments, while "robust" -- whatever that means -- could never survive being rammed by a 150-ton jet.

Nor do nuclear plants have good human security -- and this is true in Russia as well as America.

I once accompanied the Diggers -- a club that explores Moscow's sewers -- under the Kurchatov Institute, which hosts a nuclear reactor right in the city. We pried the lid off of a manhole in full sight of the institute's bored gate security.

In St. Petersburg, where I edited The St. Petersburg Times, our paper was filled with stories about hundreds of unpaid workers hunger-striking and passing out at the reactor-room controls of the Leningrad Nuclear Power Plant.

And in America, a modest NRC program to simulate terrorists moving on foot tripped up nearly half of all nuclear plants. On a half-dozen occasions, the NRC teams were able to simulate a complete core meltdown. This was so embarrassing for the nuclear industry that it had to do something -- so it recently convinced the NRC to drop the simulations. Wow, I feel safer already!

That is the context in which I read Friday's (English-language) RIA Novosti report headlined "Nuclear Terrorism 'Impossible' in Russia -- Army Expert." The article quoted one military bureaucrat stating that "there can be no nuclear terrorism in Russia," while another explained Minatom's building complexes were simply too robust -- that word again -- to be penetrated by terrorists.

These people still haven't gotten the message. Not so long ago, they were arguing that terrorism was not a scientific probability, and that terrorists had a moral impediment against taking life on a mass scale. So much for that. Now, a clear-eyed view on either side of the Atlantic ought to suggest nuclear power is done for. It had been previously discredited on environmental grounds, on public safety grounds and even on financial grounds -- don't be fooled, it's immensely costly. Now it's revealed as a national security liability: A country that has nuclear power plants, it turns out, has handed over to "the enemy" a quasi-nuclear military capability. And a pretty damn robust one at that.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, is a Washington-based fellow of The Nation Institute [].