UT report warns nuclear plants still ‘vulnerable’ to terrorist attacks

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

By Kathryn Jones


More than a decade after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, a new study released Thursday by the University of Texas for the U.S. Defense Department concluded that the nation’s 107 nuclear reactors remain vulnerable to terrorist threats.

The two most “credible” threats are the theft of bomb-grade material to make a nuclear weapon and sabotage intended to trigger a nuclear meltdown, the report found.

The study, prepared by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin, did not specifically mention the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant north of Glen Rose. It does include the South Texas Project near Bay City as one of the plants most vulnerable to an attack via water.

Researchers prepared the report as part of a larger study for the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The Pentagon financially supported the research, the NPPP said. The report was written by Lara Kirkham, a graduate research assistant at the NPPP, with Professor Alan J. Kuperman, the project’s coordinator.

Read the study here: NPPP Report

None of the nation’s U.S. nuclear power plants is protected against a “maximum credible terrorist attack, such as the one perpetrated on September 11, 2001,” the NPPP warned. Of the 107 reactors in the U.S., three are civilian research facilities and 104 are power plants.

Operators of nuclear plants “still are not required to defend against the number of terrorist teams or attackers associated with 9/11, nor against airplane attacks, nor even against readily available weapons such as high-power sniper rifles,” the NPPP said in a statement accompanying the report.

A Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman told the Bloomberg news site that the report “contains no new information or insight” and is a “rehash of arguments from a decade ago.”

David McIntyre, the spokesman, also said since 9/11, the NRC has “strengthened security requirements for commercial nuclear power plants and remains confident that these important facilities are adequately protected.”

The Current contacted Luminant, the generating company that operates Comanche Peak, for comment. A spokesperson said that no one would be available to comment until Monday. The Current will post an update then.

In addition to the South Texas Project, the nuclear units identified by the NPPP as most vulnerable to a ship-borne attack are Diablo Canyon in California, St. Lucie in Florida, Brunswick in North Carolina, Surry in Virginia, Indian Point in New York, Millstone in Connecticut and Pilgrim in Massachusetts.

Three civilian research reactors — at the University of Missouri in Columbia, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., near Washington, D.C. – also pose another terrorism danger, the report found. Reactors there are fueled with bomb-grade uranium and are “vulnerable to theft” for materials to build a nuclear weapon, the report concluded.

The researchers also criticized the way the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and NRC assess threats using a standard known as “design basis threat.” That is the kind of threat “against which facility operators are required to design protections,” as the report describes it.

That’s an unrealistic approach, the NPPP argued, in the wake of 9/11 when it’s become impossible to predict the size of attacks or their consequences.

“Less than two dozen miles from the White House and Capitol Hill, a nuclear reactor contains bomb-grade uranium but it is not required to protect against even the lesser ‘design basis threat’ of terrorism,” Kuperman told the annual meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management recently. “We know where the weak spots are when it comes to nuclear facilities, so it would be the height of irresponsibility to fail to take action now.”

The report acknowledged that the probability of a nuclear terrorist attack is “relatively low,” but added the “consequences of such an attack justify efforts to further minimize risk.”

Researchers identified four major threats that potentially expose nuclear facilities to terrorist attack:

  • Theft of nuclear weapons

The United States has a nuclear arsenal of about 5,000 active and inactive nuclear warheads stored at 21 locations in 13 states and five European countries.

Terrorists have not – as far as anyone knows — successfully stolen a nuclear weapon and likely would face challenges of multi-layered security systems, the NPPP said. If such a weapon could be stolen, the terrorist likely would “be compelled to detonate it quickly to avoid interception by authorities,” according to research cited in the report.

  • Theft of “special nuclear material”

This includes plutonium and highly enriched uranium. The U.S. inventory of such material is an estimated 600 metric tons, “sufficient for at least 24,000 warheads,” the report said.

“The theft of nuclear material in quantities large enough to construct an improvised fission bomb is a real possibility,” the researchers added. Security levels surrounding storage sites of the material tend to be lower and the United States has exported tons of the material overseas to dozens of countries, “most of which do not apply the same level of physical security as the U.S. government,” the study noted..Such thefts have occurred. From 1993 to 2007, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported 18 seizures of stolen plutonium or highly enriched uranium.

  • Sabotage of reactors

This could include aircraft attacks, vehicle bombs, anti-tank weapons or the disabling of pumps by an insider or intruder.

No recent major attacks on reactors have occurred, “leading some to argue that nuclear power plants are low priority targets for terrorists,” the researchers found. But threats have been reported abroad in Argentina, Russia, Lithuania, Western Europe, South Africa and South Korea.

The 9/11 Commission’s report also suggested that attacking a nuclear plant may not offer the “desired symbolic value” for terrorists.

However, an analysis by Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group opposed to nuclear power, used a hypothetical terrorist attack on the Indian Point nuclear power plant 35 miles from New York City as an example of the consequences of a large radiation release. An attack that caused a core meltdown could kill 44,000 people in the short term and 500,000 over time, Lyman estimated. He put the potential economic damages at $2 trillion.

  • Sabotage of spent fuel pools

Nuclear power plants, including Comanche Peak, typically store their spent fuel in facilities located on their grounds. In the regular “outages” staged at Comanche Peak and other facilities, the spent fuel is removed from the reactor core during refueling and stored in pools of cooling water. Cooling systems keep the irradiated fuel from overheating.

“The pools often lack the shielding and structural protections that the containment provides to the reactor itself, leaving the spent fuel also more vulnerable to sabotage by terrorists,” the researchers said.

The National Academy of Sciences concluded in a 2006 report that “a successful terrorist attack on spent fuel pools would be difficult, but possible.” Since there is no national central storage facility for spent fuel, nuclear power plants “often maintain their spent fuel inventories at amounts beyond the original design limits of the pool,” the study found.

Draining such a pool could trigger a fire, releasing radioactive material into the environment. In the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, the earthquake drained the spent fuel pools.

Threats against nuclear units also could come from insiders who either knowingly or unknowingly possess or pass sensitive information to someone who is a terrorist or provide it to a terrorist or organization, the study added.

That has happened. A U.S. citizen suspected of being a member of al Qaeda – identified by the Central Intelligence Agency as its “number one nuclear concern” — passed federal background checks and ended up working for five U.S. nuclear plants from 2002 to 2008, the report noted.

The way the government currently plans for threats against nuclear facilities is flawed, the NPP said, because it cannot accurately estimate the size of an attack force, downplays the insider threat, assumes a greater threat for nuclear material theft than radiological sabotage and does not include two weapons commonly used by terrorists – rocket-propelled grenades and 50-caliber sniper rifles.

That same approach did not consider deliberate attacks using airplanes as weapons as happened on 9/11, the report said, nor does it call for protection of nuclear reactors next to water for ship-borne threats.

The NPPP cited an instance in which a nuclear power plant rejected the Department of Homeland Security’s offer to install free barriers to protect against threats over water because of the costs to maintain the barriers.

The NRC should upgrade its threat assessment approach, the NPPP argued, and not leave some sites unprotected because of claims that terrorists don’t value them or that the consequences would not be catastrophic.

“It is impossible to know which high-value nuclear targets are preferred by terrorists, or which attacks would have the gravest consequences,” the NPPP concluded.


4 Responses to UT report warns nuclear plants still ‘vulnerable’ to terrorist attacks

  1. Suzanne Gentling Reply

    August 16, 2013 at 8:57 pm

    Of course we’re vulnerable and the rehashing of arguments from a decade or more that still have not been resolved is not only pertinent but essential.

    Is living down the road from over two decades of spent radioactive fuel that no one knows what to do with supposed to make me sleep better at night?

    Unfortunately, the industry will not admit to us what we already know to be the problem. Let’s not ever assume that the unthinkable cannot happen. It can and it does, somewhere, every day.

    Thank you, Kathryn, for this article.

    • Kathryn Reply

      August 18, 2013 at 3:34 pm

      Thanks, Suzanne, for your comments.

  2. Gary Shipman Reply

    August 16, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    Keep this of the web when u talk about the plants and how it stores and works you give the bad man and how to acttack the plants dumb ass shut up

    • Kathryn Reply

      August 18, 2013 at 3:35 pm

      You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, Mr. Shipman, but please do not curse on this site. We are simply reporting the news about a study.

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