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Letter From the Front Line

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, what does life feel like in the United States?

September 21, 2001

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, what does life feel like in the United States?

Our house lies directly under the turn point for airliners approaching and leaving Reagan National Airport 15 miles to the Southwest. But usually, the drone from those airliners vanishes after each plane goes by. And it halts entirely at 11 p.m. to let Washington sleep. But this growl sounded all through last night — and now never stops.

What is curious about that noise is that Washington’s Reagan National Airport in fact is closed round the clock. Constitution Mall has been designated the center of a 50-mile diameter no-fly zone. The White House and the Capitol Building are obviously the two most prominent terror targets for flying bombs piloted by the suicidal friends of Osama bin Laden.

It becomes scary not only when you do the math. These fanatics can not only buy as well as hijack a jet and load it with fuel and explosives. They can also traverse the 25-mile no-fly radius above the U.S. capital at 400 knots in three minutes forty five seconds. The proscribed radius should obviously be larger.

But Washington’s second airport, Dulles International, is only 35 miles from downtown, and planes landing there need air room leaving or approaching the runways.

My house is half way out to the edge of the no-fly area. The growl I hear is actually a combat air patrol. No formal announcement has been made. But it must be flown by at least four fighters, spaced out and circling one behind the other for even coverage, engines rising and fading as each plane sequences over my house. They have orders to shoot down any civilian aircraft entering the no-fly zone.

This certainly must last as long as the President and Congress dare to work in The White House and Capitol. It’s an act of reckless bravery for them to do so now. The fighters are surely directed by airborne AWACS aircraft with down-looking radar.

They are also surely backed up by short-range anti-aircraft missiles mounted atop buildings in the area. But three minutes forty-five seconds still cannot be enough time to guarantee a shoot-down.

That leaves open another worrying question: what about the nuclear power stations? One can only assume that similar missile defenses are probably being mounted around each of the 119 nuclear power reactors in the United States. The nukes are the largest remaining non-political civilian terror targets for airborne or truck-borne bombs.

Why? What better than to plunge one of these jet-powered bombs into another, infinitely greater potential bomb? Although a cracked power station would not explode itself — and many plants have been designed to sustain such an attack without their containment vessels fracturing — some cracks would create a drifting cloud of terrorizing radiation.

The question now is, should the 119 nuclear plants, which deliver 19% of U.S. electric power, be shut down? And should countries like France — which draws more than 75% of its electricity from nuclear power — be scratching their heads too?

In all U.S. nuclear stations security standards were designed to withstand airplane strikes. But they were only tailored to probabilities. That is, to the nearness of commercial and military aircraft routes and airports and the size of airplanes using them. In this scheme of things, no reactor seems absolutely fail-safe against jets crashing into it.

A typical U.S. nuclear power plant contains three lines of defense. First is the zirconium alloy wrapped around each uranium or plutonium rod that is supposed to prevent explosions.

Second is the six-inch thick steel reactor vessel containing the fuel rods. Third is a steel lined containment building with at least four feet of concrete.

Still, as Steven Kerekes from the Nuclear Energy Institute points out: “I can’t say that we are going to guarantee that all plants are absolutely impervious to all eventualities.” Looking abroad, can the nuclear authorities of any nation say anything different?

No nation is likely to muster the guts — or the caution — anytime soon to shut down their plants and bury the nuclear materials. But U.S. government officials are puzzling over this conundrum. Anti-nuclear activists are already demanding it. And the U.S. Army and Air Force have installed anti-aircraft missile defenses around the reactors while the overall issue is being figured out.