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Browns Ferry airspace not usually protected

By Eric Fleischauer 340-2435

Airspace over Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant will be protected by strict flight restrictions Thursday for President Bush's visit, but usually, despite widespread concerns among terrorism and nuclear experts, it is not.

Bush is visiting the recently restarted Unit 1 as part of an effort to push energy legislation pending in Congress.

As is usually the case when the president travels, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary Notice to Airmen surrounding the president's destination.

It imposes restrictions on air traffic for a radius of 35 miles around Browns Ferry, up to an altitude of 18,000 feet.

Restrictions not norm

Flight restrictions over nuclear plants are not the norm. No FAA restrictions prevent airplanes from flying over Browns Ferry or most other nuclear power plants.

That concerns some experts, particularly in light of a 2006 National Academy of Sciences report noting vulnerabilities to air attack of the spent-fuel pools at nuclear plants.

The only FAA flight restriction for planes in the vicinity of Browns Ferry is advisory, not mandatory.

It says, "pilots conducting flight operations ... are advised to avoid the airspace above or in proximity to all nuclear power plants.

Pilots should not circle or loiter in the vicinity of such facilities.

Pilots who do so can expect to be interviewed by law enforcement personnel at their destination airport."

In a subcommittee meeting of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last year, an NRC regional administrator said FAA had demurred from more stringent restrictions.

"We've coordinated with FAA and as FAA tells us, the disruption on the national flight plans for commercial flights, if there were to be restrictions over the nuclear power plants, would severely hinder the effectiveness of the commercial industry as well as increase the risk of airline flight," said Region 1 Administrator Sam Collins.

"And so that judgment has been made," Collins continued. "Although ... we continue to be pressed on why that's the case, particularly at sites that are near airports where you have ascent and descent possibilities."

Pryor Field is 10 miles from Browns Ferry. Huntsville International Airport is 20 miles from the plant.

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