December 26, 2006
Nuclear Industry Wants Regulatory Ruling On Airplane Threat

The nuclear power industry wants the US government to spell out requirements for nuclear reactor design against the threat of a jumbo jet crash into a nuclear reactor.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 24 The nuclear power industry has asked the government to specify how new nuclear plants should minimize damage from airplane attacks, weeks after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided not to institute requirements on building new plants that are tougher than the rules that prevailed decades ago when the old ones were built.

Airplanes have gotten bigger. The new Airbus A380 has 50% more floor space than a 747-400 and can have take-off weight of over 600 short tons (2000 lb per ton). That is approximately 4 times the takeoff weight of a 707 (which varies considerably depending on the dash model).

The nuclear industry wants the government to spell out any new requirements for nuclear power plants before the industry tries to build new plants.

Mr. Peterson said the industry wanted the regulations to be issued soon, because companies had expressed interest in building 30 new reactors. The actual number built is likely to be much smaller, experts say, but there is a widespread expectation of new orders, probably in 2007.

That small number of reactors means the continued ascent of coal. The problem is that coal is cheaper in many locations as long as carbon sequestration is not required (see the comments of Phil Sargent at the bottom of the comments there). Tougher emissions regulations work in favor of nuclear power. Tougher safety regulations raise the cost of nuclear power. The competition between nuclear and coal is therefore driven by regulatory environments. Nuclear needs big technologically driven cost improvements so it can win a much larger portion of the market.

What would happen with a next gen nuclear reactor if an A380 crashed into it? How hard would it be to aim such a large jet to strike a nuclear reactor? How much iron and concrete or other materials would be needed to protect a reactor from a direct strike?

There's a smarter way to deal with the problem of airplane hijacking: Program the auto-pilots to prevent airplanes from getting near a nuclear reactor. If an airplane started heading toward a nuclear reactor at a low enough altitude the auto-pilot could activate and change the course of an airplane to make it pass around the reactor. The system could be designed to only cut in below some threshold altitude so that airplanes passing over at normal cruising altitudes would not suffer any inconvenience.

Another option: build reactor vessels underground.

Yet another option: Develop an auto-pilot system that can be remotely activated to take over an airplane if the airplane is hijacked. The auto-pilot could land the plane on a runway and then shut down the engines. That seems like the best option because it would save lives of passengers. It would also protect skyscrapers and natural gas unloading terminals that are tempting targets for suicidal jihadists.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 December 26 11:17 AM  Energy Nuclear

aa2 said at December 26, 2006 1:01 PM:

By the time the US industry gets past the beginning steps of regulatory debate, China will have built and have operational nuclear plants. Then if they are liking those they will have ambitious plans for building a ton more. By then the US might be finishing the approval process for a couple different reactors on the drawing board today. Or it might not if say a new political party gets in power and changes the process so they have to start again.

Mthson said at December 26, 2006 2:48 PM:

Re: "Develop an auto-pilot system that can be remotely activated to take over an airplane if the airplane is hijacked. "

Right; instead of making every possible target resistant to big airplanes, just make big airplanes invulnerable to being highjacked.

K said at December 26, 2006 3:23 PM:

Nukes vs. Planes:

My suggestion from some time ago is to add another shell over the containment dome. That shell would do nothing except bust an intruding plane into pieces. Careful design could make it very hard to get through. What did get past would hit the containment dome. I believe the force of impact on the there would be reduced by an order of magnitude - that, of course, is why tests are conducted.

Since the outermost shell could be mostly simple steel girders and mesh the cost should be low and implementation prompt. Testing would also be straightforward - we have hundreds of planes retired from airline service.

Additional protection could be considered. Perhaps with reactive armor at the outer shell.

Dave said at December 26, 2006 9:11 PM:

"Science Daily A University at Buffalo theoretical physicist who published research in 2001 demonstrating that it someday may be possible to build bridges, buildings and other structures that are nearly blast-proof, now has published results based on computer simulations showing how a shock-absorption system might be constructed to accomplish that goal."

Do you think any gen 3 reactors should be built or wait for gen 4? they look like a huge improvement, no?

Engineer-Poet said at December 26, 2006 9:46 PM:

Airliners are rather fragile structures and, aside from engine cores, don't penetrate well.  I recall a recent test which drove a fighter airframe (without engines) at several hundred MPH into a slab of concrete made to containment-building specs.  The concrete did not crack.

Reactor containment buildings are much smaller than the WTC or Pentagon; flying an airliner into one would be difficult.  Routing past the gauntlet of the nearby control building, cooling towers and whatnot would multiply the difficulties.  Aiming the engine cores at critical components (instead of through the air over the pressure vessel, or even past the containment entirely) would take inhuman skill and impossible practice; a glancing blow off the curved dome might leave the plant unscathed.  Any strike would inevitably be a crapshoot, with lousy odds.

Adding protection to existing plants is probably impractical; the foundations of the plants are built to hold a certain weight, and adding e.g. dirt to prevent airplanes from striking the containment might cause unacceptable subsidence.  Unless we intend to shut down our current plants, we are going to have to accept a given level of vulnerability to aircraft attack.

That said, there is an attraction to burying the reactor containment deep enough that a protective berm can be built around the rest.  It won't hurt, it will silence the critics, and it may not cost too much.

morpheus said at December 27, 2006 8:16 AM:

this technology, called refuse to crash exists for at least 15 years,

at least after 911 sombody would think they might use it,

but no they gonna wait til about 2045 when is gonna pe cheap to include, in evry plane

go nuke

gmoke said at December 27, 2006 2:03 PM:

Watching CSPAN2 on Friday, October 6, 2006, I heard a VP from Westinghouse, Edward Cummins, say that it will take nine to ten years to license and build new nuclear power plants in the USA and thus, if we have to reduce our carbon emissions within the next ten years in order to avoid climate change as some believe, nuclear power will be little or no help at all.

I asssume that he is taking into account the current expedited system, complete with subsidies for helping nuclear power companies do their paperwork, now in place at the NRC but I could be wrong.

Pass it on. Nukes won't help within the one decade timeframe. Anybody who believes otherwise is smoking way too much radioactive ganja.

K said at December 27, 2006 2:30 PM:

The non-crash approach sure sounds nice. It also sounds tough to perfect and costly to create a national network and get all large planes fitted with it. But avionics often surprises me and if non-crash seems practical maybe that will be done.

Burying the reactors underground looks good as a defense. Yet I can't endorse stopping or delaying what is in progress to do it. That will just delay new plants while leaving a hundred existing plants still vulnerable; terrorists won't lack targets for decades. So what will one or two new ones add to the risk?

E-P seems to think retrofits aren't practical. I don't see that much weight in a shell designed not to totally stop a plane but to fragment it so much less impact occurs at the containment dome. I visualize a geodetic dome structure or something quite similar. No weight would be near the reactor but weight would be added near other buildings. But facts are facts and if study and testing says otherwise then don't do it.

The development of 'bunker buster' weapons by the airforce may have produced data about what is needed to get through a containment dome.

Engineer-Poet said at December 27, 2006 8:59 PM:

If you were going to put a second dome over a containment, the cheapest way would probably be to pour a perimeter foundation, inflate an air form and spray concrete on it.

Bunker busters probably aren't relevant to this analysis.  They're special penetrating devices which require attack aircraft for delivery.  If the threat model is a suicide pilot in an airliner, penetrating bombs just don't come into it.

That said, I'd try to think of any other threat models which might be managed by a stealth group with a shoestring budget.  Oh, and it has to fit the AQ requirement of being bigger than 9/11 (call them stupid, but they would rather be spectacular than effective).

K said at December 28, 2006 2:27 PM:

E-P: I figured the AF had done a lot of research on getting hard objects to penetrate hard sites. They almost certainly tested to see the penetration by an engine sized bomb even without a charge. And the variation for penetration of earth, sand, various rock, and concrete.

Gravity bombs have speed limits, accelerated bombs - i.e. missiles - can hit at greater speeds. An airliner could hit at a good speed but would probably be flying relatively slow so the pilot could be precise.

Obviously the plane is not a bunker-buster but maybe the penetration data would be a starting point for initial analysis. It wouldn't apply to an light outer dome designed to fragment airframe. It might indicate what damage is likely from the engines reaching the actual containment dome.

The heavy wing root and wheel mechanisms might alter the problem; And it is concentrated along the axis, wing root, landing gear, and fuselage. It might prove as hard to stop as an engine. That hardly sounds encouraging for my proposal. But I'm not selling, just observing, and don't really care what works or not. I do hope what is done is effective.

As for other threat models. I have never understood why attempts have not been made to sail into ports with tons of cheap explosive in the hold. Old ships aren't terribly expensive. And explosives aren't either. Maybe sea traffic is monitored better than I know sailing a small steamer is harder than it looks.

Theoretical threats seem to divide into economic and theatrical. A bomb that kills a thousand people is a theatrical threat, impressive but not very damaging to a large nation. On the other hand a few hundred flares tossed into dry national forests and corn fields ready to harvest would cost big, big bucks. The WTC attack was both - visually impressive, killed a lot of fast-track achievers, and destroyed the single most valuable (perhaps) building complex in the world.

tdean said at December 28, 2006 3:13 PM:

E-P: "Bunker busters probably aren't relevant to this analysis. They're special penetrating devices which require attack aircraft for delivery."
So says you. Now what does that mean? Let's analyse that. What does an "attack aircraft" have to accomplish to deliver a bunker buster penetrator? It has to be capable of flying to a particular point in space with about a one ton payload and release it at a particular velocity. That is not hard to do with GPS and a Lear or Boeing corporate jet. The difficult part is the precision guidance system to get it to drop onto the center of the confinement dome, but even that can be accomplished with off the shelf electronics. A combination of GPS and laser designation could do the trick. Precision guided bombs were developed in WW2 and a specialized penetrator was developed for the first Gulf War in about a month. Detailed aerodynamic simulation could make the design process inexpensive and accurate and only one or two dress rehersal tests would probably suffice to get the system hammered out. A one ton, hardened steel penetrator traveling at mach 2 would have many times the penetrating power of a jumbo jet. If the containment vessel is breached and the safety systems are destroyed, the reactor would very likely melt down completely, creating a disaster many times worse than Chernobyl, where only about 2% of the core material escaped into the environment.
It is always a great mistake to consider your enemy stupid. Terrorists have shown that they don't like to do the same thing twice and even worrying about them crashing a plane into a reactor is really pretty silly and just a feel-good diversion on the part of the nuke industry. "We're making our reactors safe from terrorist hijackers, so you don't have to worry." A precision guided penetrator or a small nuclear warhead stolen from the former USSR or provided by one of the friendly, soon to be nuclear powers would devastate a very large part of the US if dropped on a nuclear plant. None of the alternatives to coal power has anywhere near that great a risk. And remember the Price - Anderson Act that excuses the nuke industry from massive nuclear disasters. They wouldn't seek that free insurance if they and their investors didn't think it was necessary. And you can believe it is.

Dick said at December 30, 2006 6:17 PM:

"Develop an auto-pilot system that can be remotely activated to take over an airplane if the airplane is hijacked."

Oh - such a thing has already been developed - and best evidence is that a system such as this was used instead to hijack and crash the 2 planes into the WTC towers.

(flame me all you want - but you can't seriously believe Norad is blind when a transponder is simply turned off)

Until we actively try to rout out government corruption - we will not be safe from false flag attacks nor real attacks from extremists whose countries the West has selectively decide to demonize.

Otherwise any precautions we take - no matter how innovative - will simply be turned off by our own intelligence agencies.

Engineer-Poet said at December 31, 2006 9:42 PM:

One of many problems with your scenario, tdeanous:  business jets don't have hard points for mounting external weaponry, and the attempt to modify an aircraft to have such would set off warning bells.  I'm sure the spooks are watching bizjet owners and repair facilities pretty closely now.

tdean said at January 1, 2007 6:30 PM:

E-PP, I don't think you've talked to a Border Patrol or Customs guy lately. They've told me that those jets carry cocaine and heroine into the US every day and they don't have anywhere near the resources to stop them. If they had their eyes on them, the price of cocaine would be skyrocketing. I haven't checked lately, but I understand there is no shortage on the streets.

Of the many challenges of dropping a one ton device on a reactor I think that figuring out how to attach the mounts is one of the easiest. I would imagine that terrorists operating out of Columbia or Mexico are not going to the local Learjet authorized repair center to get the work done. I doubt that the CIA is watching every aluminum welder in the world. In general people attribute far too much capability to our intelligence agencies and too little to our enemies with plenty of oil and drug money to do things in a first class fashion.

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