Nuke plant vulnerable to 9/11-style attack

By WND Staff

Imagine the unthinkable: a terrorist attack that takes out a nuclear plant and the largest American military installation in the world all in one fell swoop. A Tom Clancy novel or a very disturbing, real possibility?

Every night, jetliner after jetliner fly directly over The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, or SONGS, in Southern California at altitudes that would allow a similar attack to 9-11 with less than three minutes warning, a fact that greatly concerns pilots and security experts who are familiar with the area.

Federal Aviation Administration maps show the jetway known as “Victor 23” directly over the coastline, directly over the SONGS nuclear plant at about 17,000 feet. These jets on Victor 23, or V23, could descend at well over 5,000 feet per minute in a quick but normal descent, much faster if deliberately sent into a nosedive as in the case of Egypt Air Flight 990, which was crashed off the East Coast by its copilot. The airliners outbound from San Diego’s Lindbergh Field are routinely routed on this course, loaded with passengers and full of fuel.

V23 is green, V25 yellow. Red is western perimeter of Marine base.

Victor 25, another north-south jetway, runs next to V23. V25 is only about 15 miles off the coast when passing SONGS. Jets on V25 flying at 500 miles per hour, therefore, are also only a few short minutes from the nuclear plant. While V25 is still dangerously close to SONGS, it is not directly overhead, as is V23.

Routing dozens of jetliners fueled to capacity directly over or very close to the nuclear plant at relatively low altitudes as they climb out of or descend into San Diego is a risk that could prove to be a catastrophic disaster, say airline pilots. A Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who flies fighters out of Air Station Miramar near San Diego, as well as commercial jets for American, said he’s “scared to death” by the scenario.

“Consider this,” said the pilot, who asked that his name not be used. “SONGS is surrounded by Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton on three sides and the ocean on the other. It should be the most secure nuke plant we have, but it is not.”

The Marine Corps’ busiest facility in the world, Camp Pendleton covers 200 square miles. Sixty-thousand Marines and civilians work at the base.

Even now, when the nation is in a state of alert, SONGS has only one or two private security guards at the front gate. Often the steel gate is wide open only yards from the concrete reactor housings. When Gov. Gray Davis wanted the Marine Corps to secure the plant, he was unable to get help. So he now occasionally has one California Highway Patrol unit cruising the area. He also had CalTrans post “no stopping” signs along the freeway that passes by the plant as an apparent attempt at deterrence.

Some security experts wonder why, with commercial flights within moments of the plant, flight paths haven’t been moved much further out to sea or inland. As a temporary fix until they are moved, the Marine Corps could move anti-aircraft batteries up on the hillside directly overlooking SONGS and be in constant contact with air traffic control. Both security measures would be virtually cost-free to taxpayers. The Marines are already stationed there and on the payroll, as are air traffic controllers. Yet neither has been done, now over a year after 9-11.

An FAA “high alert” order to pilots restricting some air space only affected small private planes that pose little threat to nuclear plants. The large jets full of passengers and fuel were not affected.

The public information officer at SONGS has conceded that an adequate test of whether its reactor could sustain an attack from a fully fueled airliner at several hundred miles an hour has never been done.

Even if a jet missed the actual reactor building, it may hit one of the open cooling ponds where, according to inside sources, old reactor rods full of spent fuel sit in open air pools of “heavy” (radioactive) water. Any disruption would cause a release of radioactivity into the environment.

In the event of a non-responsive jetliner from either V23 or V25 heading for San Onofre, fighter jets scrambled out of Miramar could not get off the ground in time to intercept the plane. The same is true for attack helicopters based at Camp Pendleton.

Currently, every northbound jetliner leaving San Diego on V23 is in fact headed for San Onofre. There would be no warning if an airliner on V23 started a rapid dive over Oceanside, headed for the nuke plant. Even an anti-aircraft battery couldn’t get authorization quickly enough to react.

Add to this the lax security at airports where chartered jets originate.

At Carlsbad’s Palomar Airport a few miles south of SONGS, anyone with a bag full of cash can charter a large jet such as a Gulfstream, load their luggage on board unscreened and take off. Unlike the major airlines, security is minimal or non-existent at these facilities. The business jets don’t have fortified cockpit doors and no flight crews in the cabin watching what’s going on. Often luggage can be accessed from the passenger area of these jets.

The following scenario was painted by a top military and commercial jet pilot:

“You charter a private jet about the size of an airliner, like a Gulfstream or Challenger. You load your luggage with explosives. As soon as the jet leaves Palomar full of fuel, the pilots are quite busy. Just as the jet is over the coastline, you kick open the flimsy cockpit door – if it is even closed – kill the pilots, turn the jet to the north and you are about three minutes from San Onofre. You push the throttles forward, and the jet accelerates rapidly to hundreds of miles per hour. You are already at a low altitude of a few hundred feet headed for the nuclear plant right smack in front of you. Air traffic control is frantically calling your call sign: ‘Whisky Papa 77 do you copy? Over.’ By the time they make the third or fourth attempt at contacting you, it is over.”

Then the news channels get the word: “This just in. A large jet has hit the active nuclear reactor at San Onofre, Calif. A large fireball can be seen for miles as the massive black smoke cloud moves inland and over the heavily populated civilian areas just to the northeast and over Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton that immediately surrounds the nuclear plant. It is unknown at this time if any of the smoke you are looking at in this live shot is radioactive steam from the plant. However, the plant’s emergency sirens around south Orange County and on the marine base have been activated. And we are told the only freeway leading out of the area is stopped in both directions as thousands try desperately to get out and emergency response teams try to get in. It is unknown if the jet came out of San Diego or Carlsbad.”

If this frightening scenario is on the radar screen of pilots, both military and civilian, then terrorists likely have considered it, too. The fact that the 9-11 hijackers have connections to San Diego and a history of attending flight schools adds to the alarm.

Capt. Joe Postri, a Navy fighter pilot, airline pilot and commercial aviation flight safety instructor, flies the skies above SONGS quite frequently. He agreed that the lack of security precautions related to the plant poses a grave risk. Postri noted, however, that it will not be easy to change the area’s flight patterns.

“It will take an act of Congress to move airplanes from where they have been flying for years,” he said. Both security experts and pilots are wondering just when such action might take place.

Dave Forman is a television producer, author and journalist. He has executive produced and hosted TV series for ABC, CBS and Disney. His commentaries have been published in Newsday, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, Talkers and other national publications.