McCaslin's Beltway Beat

Posted: Oct 10, 2001 12:00 AM
WHO WOULD'VE THOUGHT? At 10 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 11, as America was coming under terrorist attack, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission went to its highest level of security. First activated was the Emergency Operations Center at NRC's Washington headquarters, quickly assembling a team of top officials and specialists to protect the nation's nuclear-power plants and nuclear-fuel facilities. Identical emergency procedures were activated in each of the NRC's four regional offices. At the same time, the NRC established emergency communications with the FBI - NRC personnel were immediately dispatched to the FBI's Strategic Information Operations Center - the Department of Energy, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Close communications were also established with nuclear regulators in Canada and Mexico. Of utmost concern, given the unfolding atrocities of the morning, was the unthinkable - a large commercial airliner being intentionally crashed into a nuclear-power plant. It is so incomprehensible that NRC officials now acknowledge that nuclear-power plants were not designed to withstand such a crash. "Nuclear-power plants have inherent capability to protect public health and safety through such features as robust containment buildings, redundant safety systems, and highly trained operators," the NRC informs us. "They are among the most hardened structures in the country and are designed to withstand extreme events, such as hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. "However, the NRC did not specifically contemplate attacks by aircraft such as Boeing 757s or 767s, and nuclear-power plants were not designed to withstand such crashes. Detailed engineering analyses of a large airliner crash have not yet been performed." And if a large aircraft were to crash into one of the country's spent-fuel storage casks? "The capacity of spent-fuel dry storage casks to withstand a crash by a large commercial aircraft has not been analyzed," the NRC says. After all, there has "never been an attack" on a U.S. nuclear facility or storage area before. "On very rare occasions, there have been intrusions," the commission notes. "For example, there was a 1993 car crash through the gates of Three Mile Island plant by an individual with a history of treatment for mental illness." On Monday, Attorney General John Ashcroft announced that physical security is being beefed up in and around all of the nation's nuclear facilities, with "thorough screening" of all employees and individuals with access to those areas. OSAMA'S FAILURE As hard as it is to comprehend, the horrific terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 could have dealt an even more serious blow against the United States, devastating far more American families than those now suffering, as reflected in this comparison forwarded by an Inside the Beltway reader: -- The World Trade Center. The twin towers of the World Trade Center were places of employment for some 50,000 people. With 5,000 people listed as missing, almost 90 percent survived the attack. -- The Pentagon. Some 23,000 people were the target of the third plane aimed at the Pentagon. The latest count shows that only 123 lost their lives. On top of that, the section that was hit was the first of five sections to undergo renovations that would help protect the Pentagon from terrorist attacks. It had recently completed straightening and blastproofing, saving untold lives. -- American Airlines Flight 77. The Boeing 757 that was flown into the outside of the Pentagon could have carried up to 289 persons, yet only 64 were aboard. Luckily, 78 percent of the seats were empty. -- American Airlines Flight 11. This Boeing 767 could have had up to 351 persons aboard but only carried 92. Thankfully, 74 percent of the seats were unfilled. -- United Airlines Flight 175. Another Boeing 767 that could have held 351 people only had 65 on board. Fortunately, the plane was 81 percent empty. -- United Airlines Flight 93. This Boeing 757 was one of the most uplifting stories yet. The smallest flight to be hijacked, with only 45 persons aboard out of a possible 289, had 84 percent of its capacity unused. Yet these people stood up to the attackers and thwarted a fourth attempted destruction of a national landmark, saving untold numbers of lives in the process. In other words, out of potentially 74,280 Americans directly targeted by the inept, cowardly terrorists, 93 percent survived or avoided the attacks. Unfortunately for the attackers - as Sunday's massive launch of cruise missiles against terrorist targets inside Afghanistan demonstrates - the 7 percent who didn't survive will not be forgotten. HOW ABOUT MURDERERS? House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma is urging the Reuters news agency to reconsider its position of not using the word "terrorist" to describe the 19 men who killed some 6,000 people on Sept. 11. "I fail to see how this noun is not an accurate portrayal of the aggressors who committed the acts of violence witnessed by the entire world last month," Watts writes in a letter to the chief executive officer and editor in chief of the Reuters Group in London. "I am not asking Reuters to be Radio Free Afghanistan. Rather, I am merely requesting that you not sever the word 'terrorist' from your stylebook," the Republican chairman writes. Watts also sent out a "Dear Colleague" letter to every member of the House, urging fellow congressmen to write to Reuters, which banned the word "terrorist" for its so-called "inflammatory" potential. FEUDING DINOSAURS Don't look now in the midst of our national crisis, but more Americans these days are describing themselves as independents rather than Democrats or Republicans. The two-party American political system is in crisis, a reality that, for the time being, has been eclipsed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to two Washington political observers. Still, the current mood of bipartisanship and national unity doesn't diminish the inescapable reality that major political change is on the horizon. Ted Halstead and Michael Lind, both with the Washington-based think tank New America Foundation, write in a new Doubleday book, "The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics," that in the wake of the closest presidential election in U.S. history, the majority of Americans now call themselves independents. The authors contend both Democrat and Republican establishments have been captured by their "extreme fringes" and thus are incapable of promoting majority views on a wide range of issues. In particular, say the authors, both parties lack a national program to address vital economic, demographic and technical realities of America in the new digital information age. With liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans alike still "wedded" to the ideas and institutions of the last century, the authors say "our nation's politics are dominated by two feuding dinosaurs that have outlived the world in which they evolved." That said, Jarvis' group is initiating a multistate media campaign designed to reach key Senate leaders whose influence is vital to the passage of energy legislation pending in Congress. The campaign includes several thousand radio advertisements placed on more than 100 radio stations in the states of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota; Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.; Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.; and Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore. The ads call for the senators to support comprehensive energy legislation which, barring more serious business in Congress related to the current military effort, will be debated in coming weeks. The H.R. 4 energy bill includes President Bush's proposal to expand U.S. oil production by drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.