LAKE WYLIE — When terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and demolished the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon, they forced York County to think the unthinkable.
What if terrorists had targeted the Catawba Nuclear Station?
"Most nuclear plants were not explicitly designed to withstand the crash of a large jetliner," said Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington.
However nuclear plants are built to withstand attack from man and nature, Dricks said. "They have the inherent capability to provide for the protection of the public because the design of the containment buildings are extremely robust," Dricks said.
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After Tuesday's terrorist attacks, the NRC advised nuclear plants across the country to go to the highest level of security.
"They remain in that condition," said Dricks, who declined to describe security measures in detail.
The Catawba Nuclear Station remains on high alert. Plant officials have discontinued public tours, said Duke Energy spokeswoman Becky McSwain.
Duke operates the Catawba plant on Lake Wylie and the McGuire Nuclear Station on Lake Norman, north of Charlotte.
Duke officials are confident their plants could survive an attack similar to Tuesday's.
"We try to think ahead to what can happen to the plant and try to prevent it in the design and the way we train," McSwain said. "If I was a terrorist, I wouldn't choose a nuclear plant to pick on."
But officials for a Washington-based nuclear watchdog group aren't convinced that a plant could withstand a direct hit from an airliner.
"People may have thought about it, but plants were not designed to meet that kind of challenge," said Edwin Lyman, scientific director for the Nuclear Control Institute. "It was thought to be a highly remote event. Something that can't happen here; it has."
About half the country's 103 nuclear plants failed a test involving an armed terrorist assault, Lyman said. Duke officials said their plants passed the test with flying colors. But none of those security preparations foresaw the level of terrorist attack demonstrated last week, Lyman cautioned.
"We think real emergency action is required right now and that the assumption should be that the existing level of security is not sufficient to deter the kind of threat we now know exists," Lyman said. "This attack surprised everyone. It was an attack on the heart of the country. Any security system that was believed to be credible needs to be redesigned," Lyman continued.
"A jetliner traveling at full speed dive bombing a nuclear plant would in all likelihood be able to penetrate, inject jet fuel into the containment, igniting the jet fuel, leading to a severe accident and a severe meltdown," Lyman warned.
It's not that simple, McSwain contends. Any jetliner assault on the Catawba Nuclear Station would have to breach more than thick concrete and steel before the public is endangered.
"It's not like just cracking the building. You have to fail all three barriers, the building, the vessel and the fuel," McSwain said.
Nuclear fuel is contained in ceramic pellets sealed inside a tube. The fuel is housed inside an 8-inch thick steel vessel, located inside a building with concrete walls 3- to 4-feet thick, McSwain said.
"You almost have to vaporize that fuel and get it into a large area before you have any public consequences. That's hard to do," McSwain said.
In the event that terrorists breach plant security and trigger a nuclear emergency, Duke and York County officials said they are prepared.
Mike Channel, York County emergency management coordinator, said the scenario was discussed Tuesday, but utility staff assured them that security had been heightened.
As part of their emergency preparedness strategy, municipal, county and state emergency services and utility employees simulate a disaster drill every year.
For the public, Duke publishes evacuation routes in the calendar it distributes every year. And in the event of an emergency, radio and television stations are part of an emergency broadcast system. Four times a year, the utility tests its emergency siren.
"We are ready," McSwain said." Nothing is perfect, but we have a good system."