Opinion: Our nuclear facilities pose their own risks; being a target of war is just one more

Staff file photo / Unit 1 and 2 cooling towers billow at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant.

It didn't take long for the nuclear threat of the Russian-Ukraine war to become real. It took less than one week.

On Feb. 25, after Russian soldiers invading northern Ukraine took over the shuttered Chernobyl Nuclear plant, Wired wrote of the risks to Ukraine's other nuclear plants as Russians began to surround and take aim at the country that lies between it and western Europe.

The risk was small, "but not zero," the headline stated. Down in the story, a well-known-to-us nuclear expert - Ed Lyman, senior global security scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of the book, "Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster" - said deliberately targeting a nuclear plant would be an unlikely but potentially disastrous mistake.

"That's certainly something I think the Russians would make an effort to avoid doing, not only because they don't want to contaminate the country they're trying to occupy - but, also, Ukraine needs electricity from those plants," Lyman said.

So much for that. On Thursday evening, amid shelling, a fire broke out at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine. The Zaporizhzhia plant contains six of the country's 15 nuclear energy reactors. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is calling the strike on the nuclear plant, which the Russians have now seized, a war crime.

Make no mistake: Lyman knows reactors and nuclear power. He has talked with us often about the Tennessee Valley Authority's nuclear plants - Sequoyah in Soddy-Daisy, Watts Bar in Rhea County and Browns Ferry in Northeast Alabama.

What he couldn't know was the ruthless mind of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And who knows what was in the minds of Russian tank fighters as they took aim Thursday at a complex in southern Ukraine that is home to Europe's largest nuclear power plant.

The blaze at the Ukrainian plant eventually was contained and the plant was secured, officials said. The U.S. Nuclear Incident Response Team was monitoring the situation and saw "no elevated radiation readings near the facility," Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm tweeted last week.

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency told CNN a large number of Russian tanks and infantry "broke through the block-post" to the town of Enerhodar, a few kilometers from the power plant.

"What makes it unprecedented is this is the first time in post-second world war history we have a full-fledged military operation amidst ... a big number of nuclear facilities, including nuclear reactors," Grossi said.


But it's not the first time there have been concerns about attacks - especially terrorist attacks - on nuclear reactors. Even our own. TVA and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and others have more than once made it abundantly clear the risks are real.

The terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, rang one of the first alarms. The 9/11 commission report, released in July 2004, suggests the tragedy's ringleader considered crashing a commercial airliner into a nuclear power plant in the New York area that he'd seen during familiarization flights near the city. Instead, Mohamed Atta, who piloted one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center, stuck with plot already agreed upon.

Just in the first decade after 9/11, TVA spent more than $100 million to beef up security at our three nuclear plants. The utility also spent millions more to protect its 29 hydroelectric dams, 11 coal plants, four gas plants, and its power grid system with 17,000 miles of transmission lines and offices in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Those upgrades and changes continued through the second decade after the attacks.

"Sept. 11, 2001, changed the world for everyone, but especially for those of us responsible for the security of federal installations and infrastructure," TVA spokesperson Jim Hopson told the Times Free Press last year. "Following 9/11, the way we went about ensuring the safety of employees and facilities became an even more critical part of everyday life."

Still, nuclear plants, and certainly the Oak Ridge National Laboratory 98 miles to our northeast, remain a possible target whether the threat is terror, war, horrible weather or simply exposé.

Tornado outbreaks in April 2011 - 492 tornadoes in the Southeast in the space of about three days - left nearly 360 people dead, twisted miles of electrical grid in Northeast Alabama and Mississippi into enormous steel pretzels and sent all three of Browns Ferry's reactors into "automatic" shutdown.

All nuclear plants are designed to go into automatic shutdown when something goes wrong. It's a safety feature - like a fuse blowing when your circuits are overloaded. But it's not a fail-safe, as Fukushima's meltdowns proved.

After our tornadoes here ripped miles of grid transmission lines, the 3,400 megawatts of electricity being generated at Brown's Ferry had no place to go. The plant "tripped" and went into automatic shutdown. TVA said the plant operated as it was designed. But it wasn't as easy as TVA first wanted us to believe.


With no electricity (nuclear plants supply themselves power as they make it), the plant's three reactors and three spent fuel pools had to be cooled for at least five days with only diesel generator power to pull in precious cooling water from the Tennessee River.

TVA initially said the shutdown was "automatic" and everything "functioned as it should." But documents the utility was required to submit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission later showed that reactor operators became distracted while manually operating cooling water flow to the Unit 1 reactor, and water began boiling off faster than it was being replaced.

Additionally, a valve failed, a diesel-driven fire pump failed, the diesel-driven generator for the security station failed, the warning sirens were lost, power to the chemical lab was lost, and an emergency diesel generator that keeps cool water flowing to one of three reactors shut down because of voltage fluctuations caused by a fluid leak after a brass fitting broke.

The water in the endangered reactor boiled low enough to trigger another shutdown alarm in the control room, said then-TVA spokesman Ray Golden, but boiling water still covered the reactor fuel.

Aren't we glad everything "functioned as it should?"

In Oak Ridge in 2012, an 85-year-old nun and two middle-aged anti-nuclear activists calling themselves "Transform Now Plowshares" broke into the Y-12 nuclear facility, known as the "Fort Knox of Uranium." The unlikely trio hiked over a wooded ridge, evaded patrols, cut through sensored fences and entered a shoot-to-kill zone - all to paint peace slogans and throw blood on the wall of a looming white building that contained a stockpile of the makings of 10,000 hydrogen bombs.

They revealed major security flaws at the facility, sparking a series of congressional hearings. The New York Times described the event as "the biggest security breach in the history of the nation's atomic complex."

And in 2018, Forbes reported on Greenpeace announcing its employees had crashed a drone into a nuclear power plant cooling pool facility in France in order to show the world just how vulnerable nuclear plants are to terrorist attacks.

The plant's operator, France's state-owned electric utility, denounced the stunt and said, "The presence of these drones had no impact on the security of the installations."

Wait. Wasn't that the point? To cause no damage but expose the danger?

Even before last week's shelling of Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia plant, IAEA's Grossi told The Washington Post: "It is extremely important that the nuclear power plants are not put at risk in any way. An accident involving the nuclear facilities in Ukraine could have severe consequences for public health and the environment."

He should have said nuclear facilities everywhere should not be put at risk.

It seems they themselves pose more than enough.