WASHINGTON—The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) criticized ABC News today for misleading the public as part of the network’s report last night on security at university research reactors, and for raising the specter of a “dirty bomb” attack at a reactor without providing credible information on the likely impact of such an attack.
NEI said that, while it is important for all security deficiencies to be identified and resolved, ABC sensationalized the findings of its investigation by failing to assess the difficulty that even suicidal terrorists would face in trying to remove heavy, highly radioactive material from the small research reactors that were the focus of the ABC report.
NEI also faulted ABC News for failing to inform viewers during Thursday night’s airing of “Primetime” that its team of undercover journalists posing as “prospective graduate students” aroused suspicion early in its investigation, had its mission uncovered by the FBI long before the investigation was completed and was denied access to some reactors.
“Any attempt at balanced reporting by ABC News should have included more than a brief discussion of topaz irradiation at one reactor in a one-hour report to provide viewers with a real sense of why university research reactors exist and what benefits they provide to society at large,” said NEI’s chief nuclear officer, Marvin Fertel. “Given this failing on ABC’s part, many viewers of last night’s report almost certainly were left with a skewed view of the value of these facilities, particularly when weighed against the limited possibility that the general public could be placed at risk if the facility were burglarized or attacked. The amount of uranium fuel in research reactors – most of which are below ground level – is so small that even in the event of attack, there is virtually no safety risk to the general public even in close proximity to the buildings that house the research reactors.
“At the same time, the benefits that society derives from these reactors are immense. They contribute to advances in medical diagnostics and treatments, foster the safety and effectiveness of nuclear energy production, help archaeologists and anthropologists better understand ancient cultures, and facilitate the study of materials such as electronic components that can withstand cosmic radiation for space travel.”
ABC’s failure to provide viewers with credible information on the likely impact of a “dirty bomb” – also known as a radiological dispersal device (RDD) – was perhaps the most egregious shortcoming in its report, Fertel said.
The ABC report includes a suggestion by an undercover “graduate student” that she “very easily” could have tossed a backpack with explosives into a steel and concrete-lined deep pool that houses a research reactor, and a reporter says, “explosives thrown in [the reactor] could be the beginning of a dirty bomb.” The report also quotes an anti-nuclear activist saying, “A terrorist with a little bit of explosives in a backpack like that student would be able to release a vast amount of radioactivity in a very populated area.”
Dr. Andrew Karam, director of radiation safety at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said ABC News’ assessment is wrong.
“The bottom line is that throwing a small bomb into a reactor pool is likely to damage the reactor core, and likely to cause some radioactivity to be released,” Karam said. “However, I would not expect this contamination to pose a health risk to people nearby.”
The fuel elements in a research reactor are metal, and in the scenario suggested by ABC News, are more likely to be bent or twisted than to be broken in half. Therefore, the amount of radioactivity that can escape is limited. A cracked fuel element, even a broken one, will release only as much radioactivity as is exposed at that point.
“Think of cutting into a pie,” Karam said. “Some of the filling leaks out into the cut area, but the pie does not spontaneously empty when it's cut open. In other words, there will likely be a release of radioactivity, but most of the radioactivity will remain contained within the fuel elements. Of the activity that escapes from the fuel elements, much would be entrained in the water, and would end up in the reactor building, not on campus. The risk to the public from this would be low,” he said.
A 2003 report, “Commercial Radioactive Sources: Surveying the Security Risks,” by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies states, “that, unlike nuclear weapons, RDDs (including those using the seven radioactive isotopes noted above) are typically not weapons of mass destruction. Few, if any people would die immediately or shortly after use of an RDD from exposure to the ionizing radiation from such a device … Most people not directly affected by the conventional (bomb) blast would receive relatively low doses of ionizing radiation, even from weapons using the seven high-security threat radioactive isotopes.”
Similarly, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has posted on its web site (www.nrc.gov) a letter from the director of the agency’s Office of Nuclear Security and Incident Response, Roy Zimmerman, to ABC News that states, “(T)he radiological consequences of an attack on RTRs (research and test reactors) would be low due to the small quantities of radioactive material present, the reactor structure and shielding designs, and the safety and security measures in place.”
University research reactors typically have reactor cores that are no larger than a dormitory refrigerator. They are fully enclosed in radiation-shielded structures consisting of several feet of concrete and other materials.
Fertel said that, while it is critical that universities adhere to NRC security requirements at the research reactors, access to a research reactor does not automatically lead to a dirty bomb scenario as claimed by ABC News and critics of these facilities interviewed by the network. All of the uranium fuel at research reactors is either positioned 15 to 20 feet under water in the reactor vessel or has been irradiated in the reactor and is securely stored. For this reason, even if a bomb contained in a backpack were tossed into the reactor pool, much of the blast would be diverted by the structures surrounding the reactor, reducing the amount of damage. Moreover, even if a suicidal terrorist might be willing to risk lethal exposure to steal this material – which is typically quite heavy and would require lifting gear – it would require a lot of time trying to steal it. The material is not accessible in a way that would allow anyone to remove that material easily, Fertel said.
NRC documents reveal that the mission of ABC’s undercover team was uncovered while its investigation was under way.
Additionally, The Kansas City (Mo.) Star reported this week that two of ABC’s investigators “were rebuffed” when they tried to gain access to the research reactor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and that when they visited the research reactor at Kansas State University, “the staff had a pretty good idea who the women really were. … (F)ederal authorities had figured out that the visitors were actually undercover reporters (and) the FBI passed the tip along to K-State.”
The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available on NEI’s Internet site at http://www.nei.org.