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

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Water surrounds the core of a nuclear reactor. Image by Matt Howard

Nuclear Research Facilities.

The researchers included three facilities in the study: University of Missouri in Columbia (MURR), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge (MITR) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Washington, D.C./Baltimore suburb of Gaithersburg.

What makes these different from a typical nuclear reactor is their use, and the fuel. Research reactors are typically used for science testing, training, material testing, production of radioisotopes for medicine and industry. These nuclear facilities are not used for power, and therefore are much smaller then power reactors.

These test reactors are neutron producers; uniquely suited to study structure and dynamics of materials at an atomic level, and many are located right on university campuses.

Research reactors are simpler than power plants, with a high power density in the core and a cooling function. The three mentioned above use 93% U-235 enriched fuel (HEU-highly enriched uranium). This is bomb-grade nuclear material.

As of 2008, the U.S. government started converting university research reactors from using HEU fuel to low-enrichment uranium fuel less than 20% U-235(LEU). Due to funding, LEU fuel development and testing issues, and a long-term commitment, the schedule for conversion of the HEU research reactors to LEU has been repeatedly extended.

Renewed vigor within the U.S. has made a target of HEU reactors to be converted or shut down prior to 2020. This begs the question, how do we protect the remaining HEU test reactors, the three mentioned above, for example, from terrorist attacks?

The answer for the present, is through additional security.

After 9/11, HEU nuclear sites added additional security measures. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, these measures included “enhancements in screening of personnel, systems for controlling access to the facility, observation of activities within the facilities, alarms or other devices to detect unauthorized presence, operability of communication systems, vehicle and package searches, and heightened coordination with appropriate local, State, and Federal resources liaisons, and with the FAA and law enforcement authorities to report unusual overflights or potential threats.”

Courtesy of Steve Evans

Nuclear Power Plant Threats

We can narrow down threats to nuclear power plants into a single general scenario: a terrorist group attacking and getting control of a nuclear power plant and then shutting down the cooling systems. This sort of attack requires both knowledge and opportunity.

Neither Three Mile Island and Fukushima, which lost cooling, resulted in any deaths through radiation over-exposure.

Research/test reactors are another issue entirely. Some of the older reactors greater than 1mw use HEU for their fuel, and some use 93% enriched U-235, bomb grade material.

Testing LEU for fuel use and conversion is in process but the three facilities mentioned in the report are years off, so security could become an issue. The NRC has taken addition security implementation measures; one can only hope this will be enough.

References

Holt, M., Andrews, A. Nuclear Power Plant Security and Vulnerability. (2012). Congressional Research Service. Accessed August 19, 2013.

Broad, W. Research Reactors Seen As Security Risk. (2010). The New York Times. Holt, M., Andrews, A. Nuclear Power Plant Security and Vulnerability. (2012). Congressional Research Service. Accessed August 19, 2013.

NRI. Nuclear Power Plant Safety. (2011). Holt, M., Andrews, A. Nuclear Power Plant Security and Vulnerability. (2012). Congressional Research Service. Accessed August 19, 2013.

NRI. Nuclear Power Plant Security. Holt, M., Andrews, A. Nuclear Power Plant Security and Vulnerability. (2012). Congressional Research Service. Accessed August 19, 2013.

L. Foyto, K. Kutikkad, J. C. McKibben, N. Peters, E. Feldman, J. Stevens, J. Stillman. The University of Missouri Research Reactor HEU to LEU Fuel Conversion Project Status. (2012). Holt, M., Andrews, A. Nuclear Power Plant Security and Vulnerability. (2012). Congressional Research Service. Accessed August 19, 2013.

NEI. Analysis of Nuclear Power Plant Shows Aircraft Crash Would Not Breach Structures Housing Reactor Fuel. (2002). Holt, M., Andrews, A. Nuclear Power Plant Security and Vulnerability. (2012). Congressional Research Service. Accessed August 19, 2013.

McKelway, Doug. Security at nations nuclear facilities vulnerable to terrorist attack, report says. (2013). Fox News. Holt, M., Andrews, A. Nuclear Power Plant Security and Vulnerability. (2012). Congressional Research Service. Accessed August 19, 2013.

Wingfield, Brian. Nuclear Reactors in U.S. Seen at Risk of Terrorist Attach. (2013). Bloomberg.Holt, M., Andrews, A. Nuclear Power Plant Security and Vulnerability. (2012). Congressional Research Service. Accessed August 19, 2013.

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