Some TV news documentaries and newspaper articles and editorials have featured a crash test, provided by nuclear industry representatives, showing an F-4 Phantom jet being rocket-propelled on a sled into a massive concrete wall. The plane disintegrates in a fireball; the wall is barely scratched. The conclusion offered by industry is that reactor containment domes can resist air crashes, even by jumbo jets.

Not so fast.

The U.S. Sandia National Laboratories, which conducted and filmed the test in 1988, has put the following disclaimer on its website: "The test was not intended to demonstrate the performance (survivability) of any particular type of concrete structure to aircraft impact."

And for good reason.

As a letter to the editor of the New York Times by NCI Scientific Director Edwin Lyman, points out, the crash test "proves nothing, since the wall was not attached to the ground and was displaced nearly six feet."

Lyman goes on to quote directly from the Sandia test report: "The major portion of the impact energy went into movement of the target and not in producing structural damage."

In fact, the wall was not anchored in the ground (as containment domes are) but suspended on a cushion of compressed air so that it would be pushed back and would not suffer structural damage. The reason: the test was not intended to test the strength of the wall, but rather to measure the impact forces of the jet crashing into it. That is why Sandia devised a "frictionless" way for the wall to move, upon impact.

Of course, the dramatic footage of the crash suggested just the opposite: a containment-type wall resisting the full impact of a 500 mph jet crash!

The nuclear power industry, which closely follows research results of the Sandia National Laboratories, has made no effort to clear up the misimpression left by the film of the test. Indeed, the test is a phony when it is used to demonstrate reactor containment survivability.

The Nuclear Control Institute now calls on the Nuclear Energy Institute and other representatives of the nuclear power industry, to disavow the Sandia test, to acknowledge its misleading results, and to apologize for recklessly misleading the public.

Here are some other details that dramatically illustrate just how misleading the film of the Sandia test is:

-- The fuel tanks of the Phantom jet were filled with water, not jet fuel (this to permit Sandia to measure the dispersal of the water upon impact and thus project how jet fuel would be dispersed in a crash);

-- The total weight of the Phantom fighter is only about 5% of a 767 jumbo jet;

-- The Phantom's engine weight is only about 1/3d that of a 767 jumbo jet engine (the Nuclear Control Institute has calculated a jumbo jet engine could penetrate six feet of reinforced concrete);

-- The concrete test wall was 12 feet thick, compared with the 3.5-foot-thick concrete containment domes of nuclear power plants.

What is needed is a peer-reviewed design analysis to demonstrate whether containment domes could resist a full-speed crash of a jumbo jet. Until such a design analysis is completed by U.S. government scientists and regulators, the industry's claims that containments could resist such a crash should be rejected.

Paul Leventhal
Nuclear Control Institute