U.S. Nuclear Plants Vulnerable to Threats: Fact or Fiction?


Home / U.S. Nuclear Plants Vulnerable to Threats: Fact or Fiction?

How vulnerable are nuclear plants to terror attacks? Image courtesy of Felix Konig

A report issued by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (NPPP) states that none of the 107 nuclear facilities in the United States are protected – and they remain vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Of the 107 facilities, 104 are commercial nuclear power reactors and three are civilian research reactors operated at Universities.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) calls this new report a rehash of arguments from a decade ago, saying it contains no new information. However, since the 9/11 event the NRC contends it has strengthened security significantly and trusts that these steps adequately cover any issues.

At the heart of the discussion? Questions as to how the reactor is fueled and its enrichment percentage. There is a real difference between nuclear power plants and research facilities.  Let’s take a look.

Nuclear Power Plants: Vulnerability

The NPPP focused on deliberate sabotage of nuclear facilities such as attack via aircraft, vehicle bombs, anti-tank weapons or by disabling the shutdown methods for the plant causing a meltdown similar to Fukishima or Three Mile Island. Or perhaps the theft of bomb-grade enriched uranium. A group of terrorists, more than a handful, could take over the plant and cause a meltdown to happen, steal uranium or perhaps someone working within could cause problems.

It would be a tragedy, indeed, if all this could happen, but the facts don’t support all these findings.

  • Enriching Nuclear Fuel: Nuclear fuel is not highly enriched, it is 5% U-235. To make it bomb grade, the U-235 must be enriched to 85-90%. This is not an easy process; one such technique is through advanced centrifuge technology not readily available. The spent fuel is also radioactive, therefore special shielding to move it would be necessary. The terrorists would also have to be highly trained and radiation-protected.
  • Nuclear Facilities and Physical Attacks: What about hitting the containment with anti-tank weapons or flying a plane into it? The containment is a concrete structure several feet thick that holds the reactor vessel and fuel. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) conducted state-of-the-art computer modeling to determine if the typical nuclear power plant containment, used fuel storage pools, fuel storage containers, and transportation containers, could withstand a direct hit by a large commercial jetliner. The results validate the industry’s stand of ‘yes, they can.’ Clearly, there would be damage – but the models confirm that no radiation release would occur: The public would be safe.
  • Internal Sabotage: The real vulnerability arises from the potential for sabotage: Getting control over the nuclear power plant and disabling the safe shutdown mechanisms, potentially causing a Three Mile Island or Fukushima meltdown scenario. In a meltdown scenario, the water circulation would not occur, therefore the fuel would melt. Both Fukushima and Three Mile Island did not kill one person due to over-exposure of radiation, even though both were the worst nuclear power plant accidents where the cooling mechanisms failed.

Nuclear Power Plant Threat

Terrorist in control of a nuclear reactor could be a threat – therefore, it comes down to security at nuclear power plants. The NPPP report states that plants on the ocean have more threats of attack then those inland, and none have enough security. Since 9/11, the NRC has strengthened security requirements for nuclear power plants, with a total of 9,000 armed officers guarding the plants, including increased patrols, vehicle checks and physical barriers. Whether on the ocean or not, nuclear plants have extensive security. The argument of -is it enough security or not? – is a long and protracted issue.

The statement ‘there is never enough security’ is a hard one to argue with, but unrealistic.

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