GERMAN NUCLEAR REACTOR
Christof Stache  /  AP file
The dome of this nuclear reactor in Stade, Germany, rises high and would be easily visible to an airborne terrorist.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/30/2004 12:32:08 PM ET 2004-07-30T16:32:08

Nuclear power plants are an easy target for airborne terrorists, so how to defend against an attack? Several German utilities want to develop a smoke-screen defense, and have asked the company Rheinmetall to install systems for the country's 18 active nuclear reactors.

The system has been tested and allows plant operators to hit a button to envelop a reactor in smoke within seconds, making it impossible for a pilot to see the reactor or areas where spent fuel are kept.

But some German officials are skeptical. “The smokescreen plan, in its current form, is not sufficient to significantly improve the protection of nuclear power plants,” Environment Minister Juergen Trittin said this week. “We have therefore asked state authorities to come up with improvements.”

Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks, countries with nuclear plants have been investigating how to protect their reactors from airborne strikes.

Some countries have considered installing anti-aircraft missiles at power plants. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission believes the best defense is via airport security.

"That's the proper way," said NRC spokesman Scott Burnell, adding that "we don't discuss the details of what's actually in place at the plants across the country."

As for the smokescreen, Burnell said "we've certainly heard of it ... but to the best of my knowledge that idea has not been discussed within the NRC."

Burnell noted that even in the case an airliner were to hit a reactor, NRC tests have shown it would not penetrate the reinforced concrete shell. "We remain confident that that sort of incident would be extremely unlikely" to cause a radioactive leak, he said.

Critics have said that the storage areas for spent fuel, which is still highly radioactive, are less secure.

Back in Germany, the smoke-screen project still requires additional government approvals. But the utilities hope to obtain the go-ahead by the end of the year, and install the systems in 2005.

MSNBC.com's Miguel Llanos and Reuters contributed to this report.

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