WASHINGTON—Fearing terrorist air attacks, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is urging the federal government to impose no-fly zones around nuclear facilities across the country.
But Illinois officials, airport managers and pilots from his home state, which has more nuclear power plants than any other, said a similar policy in place about a month ago resulted in major headaches.
"All it does is make things more difficult for law-abiding, non-terrorist citizens," said Warren Morningstar of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a group with about 13,000 members in Illinois.
"Our aircraft pose a pretty small risk," he said. "Most of our airplanes weigh less than a compact car, and most of these facilities were built to endure impact from an airliner."
The Federal Aviation Administration instituted a no-fly zone on Oct. 30 that lasted a week. It barred general aviation aircraft from flying below 18,000 feet within 10 nautical miles of 95 nuclear facilities.
The move came after an FBI alert about possible terrorist activities.
In a letter last week to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge and other federal officials, Durbin said no commercial nuclear site appears to be secure against air attacks like those that occurred against the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11.
"Prudence dictates that the federal government take active steps to protect citizens against the threat of a possible air attack on a nuclear facility," the senator said.
The proposal is similar to those made earlier by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
Durbin's letter was also sent to Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta as well as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"At this point, we don't have a policy or a response to this proposal," said Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He added the agency is conducting reviews and working with other federal agencies on security.
Security measures at nuclear power plants are classified, though they must be prepared for ground assaults.
Illinois has six active nuclear power plants with a total of 11 reactors in Clinton, Byron, Braidwood, Dresden, LaSalle and the Quad Cities. It also has a decommissioned plant at Zion and a nuclear facility in Metropolis.
Mike Chamness, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, said state officials would need to be sure Durbin's proposal would not shut down small airports before giving it their support.
"The terrorists are under no obligation to obey our no-fly zones," he added.
Under the no-fly zone imposed in October, Waukegan Regional Airport shut down and the Greater Rockford Airport closed two runways for general aviation aircraft.
Walter Jones, executive director of the Waukegan airport, said the site it home to about 200 general aviation aircraft and 49 corporate jets. He said the airport, about 10 miles south of Zion near the Illinois-Wisconsin border, would have to close permanently under a no-fly zone like the last one.
Ronald Timm, president of RETA Security in Lemont, Ill., and a former Energy Department security analyst, cautioned that nuclear facilities would need the capability to shoot down aircraft, because fighter planes would be unlikely to arrive in time to provide adequate protection.
That could take as long as 6 to 18 months of work and cost $500,000 to $5 million at each site, with annual operating costs as much as $1.5 million, he said.