Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Danger of Testing Drones in Upstate New York

In response to a law directing the FAA find ways for unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to fly safely within US airspace, the agency chose 6 sites around the US for drone research and testing. Griffiss International Airport was chosen because it had ready access to the northeast's congested airspace. The FAA says research at the Rome NY airport will focus on drones sensing and avoiding other aircraft. Enjoy your Buffalo to Albany NY flight. 

Rome NY is very close to 3 nuclear power plants located at Scriba NY: Nine Mile Point 1, 2 and Fitzpatrick --just 54 miles  west of Griffiss. Forty miles further west is one more nuclear power reactor -- Gina -- in Ontario NY. There are 4 nuclear power reactors in within 100 miles of the proposed drone testing base in Rome NY. Scriba NY is 7 miles east of Oswego NY.

What’s the concern? While the crash of an uncontrolled drone into  structurally hardened dome ...the containment structure....covering a nuclear reactor is unlikely to cause a problem, a similar crash into the buildings housing the spent fuel is another story.  Nuclear/environmental expert Robert Alvarez says those buildings "....are made from materials commonly used to house big-box stores and car dealerships".

A Congressional Research Service report released this month highlighting the problem of building integrity "[spent fuel storage is].... located outside the reactor containment structure, particular concern has been raised about the vulnerability of spent fuel to attack by aircraft or other means." 

And the amount of spent fuel radioactivity stored at the Scriba NY power plants is enormous...almost 300 million Curies --  3 times that of the troubled reactors at Fukushima Japan.

 About 80% of the spent fuel rods are kept in pools of circulating water to prevent self-igniting fires and subsequent  release of radioactivity to the atmosphere. Alvarez claims that a spent-fuel fire could cause an area of up to 340,000 square miles to become uninhabitable. An equivalent area is a circle with a radius of 330 miles, the distance between Scriba NY and Washington DC.

Leaks of water from those pools -- due to seal and fitting failures -- have occurred about ten times in the last 10 years. The frequent leaks underscores the vulnerability of spent fuel.

At a minimum, a drone crashing into a building housing spent-fuel rods could breech the seals surrounding the pools causing release of radioactive water into the environment, a subsequent fire and release of more radioactivity into the atmosphere.

On Nov 12 a MQ-9 Reaper drone -- under the control of a student pilot from the 174th Attack Wing -- based at Hancock Field near Syracuse NY -- crashed near the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, not far from the three Scriba nuclear power plants. That drone took off from Wheeler-Stack Army air base at Camp Drum NY and has yet to be found.

The Syracuse Post-Standard says the 174th Attack Wing  "...flies them across a wide swath of Upstate New York, from west of Rochester eastward to near Blue Mountain Lake, and from Syracuse north to the Massena area." That area includes the three nuclear power plants at Scriba NY and one at Ontario NY.

When the Rome NY drone base becomes active as the second drone base in NY, we will have two drone bases each about 50 miles from the three Scriba NY nuclear power plants.

It appears we will have many drones operating in test-mode in airspace over four operating nuclear reactors.

Charley Bowman
Renewable Energy Task Force
WNY Peace Center


1. Reducing the Hazards from Stored Spent Power-Reactor Fuel in the United States, by Robert Alvarez, Jan Beyea, Klaus Janberg, Jungmin Kang, Ed Lyman, Allison Macfarlane, Gordon Thompson, Frank N. von Hippel
Science and Global Security, 11:1–51, 2003

2. Spent Nuclear Fuel Pools in the U.S.: Reducing the Deadly Risks of Storage, by Robert Alvarez
Institute for Policy Studies, May 2011.

3. Nuclear Power Plant Security and Vulnerabilities by Mark Holt and Anthony Andrews, Congressional Research Service January 3, 2014. RL34331

4. Military Drones Grounded in Central New York following Crash in Lake Ontario, by Tim Knauss. Syracuse Post Standard ( , Nov. 13, 2013.

All of these are freely available on the internet.

1 comment:

  1. boy, oh boy. Just checked the distance from Scriba, NY to Buffalo, NY. Via the 190 it's 160 miles. Buffalo, Washington DC and all points in between. Now tell me, why are they planning to fly drones. Didn't they say it was to protect us from Terrorists?