Nuclear Plants and Terrorism

As George Bush and Tony Blair fume timorously about Saddam Hussein’s taking babysteps toward acquiring a primitive nuclear weapon, it is clear that the real nuclear threat resides much closer to home.

The original plan for the 9-11 attacks called for hi-jacked commercial airplanes to be crashed into at least two nuclear power plants. So say two al-Qaeda operatives interviewed last week by al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based television network.

Al-Jazeera’s Yosri Fouda interviewed Ramzi bin al-Shaibah and Khaled al-Sheikh Mohammad in Pakistan’s port city of Karachi. The Sunday London Times identified Sheikh Mohammad, 38, as head of the al-Qaeda military committee, and Shaibah, 30, as coordinator of the operation from his base in Germany. According to Fouda’s report for al-Jazeera, Sheikh Mohammad had devised the idea of targeting “prominent” buildings in the United States. Mohammad is an uncle of Ramzi Yousef, who is now serving a life sentence in the United States for the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

Ultimately, discretion prevailed, even among the members of bin Laden’s so-called “Department of Martyrs.”. The nuclear plants were taken off the target list because the men from al-Qaeda feared a doomsday scenario where the radioactive explosions could “get out of control.” But, the two told al-Jazeera, future attacks on American or British nuclear reactors would not be ruled out.

The nuclear industry in the US and the Bush administration continue to push nuclear power as a virtuous energy source and deny that the nation’s 113 nuclear power plants pose any kind of terrorist threat. But it appears the operatives at al-Qaeda are at least more honest in this regard that the flacks for the nuclear lobby or the bumbling Spence Abraham and his cohorts at the Department of Energy.

Shortly after 9/11 Daryl Kyd, a spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, laid out the problem in stark terms. “Reactors have the most robust engineering of any buildings in the civil sector – only missile silos and nuclear bunkers are built to be tougher,” Kyd said. “They are designed to be earthquake-proof, and our experiences in California and Japan have shown them to be so. They are also built to withstand impacts, but not that of a wide-bodied passenger jet full of fuel. A deliberate hit of that sort is something that was never in any scenario at the design stage. These are vulnerable targets and the consequences of a direct hit could be catastrophic.”

Dr. Nicholas Berry, at the Center for Defense Information, is even more blunt. “Nuclear reactors are latent nuclear weapons,” says Berry. “The plants are hostages to a potential enemy who could threaten to devastate them.”

If al-Qaeda had stuck to their original plan and smashed those plans into a commercial nuclear reactor what may have happened? A direct hit on a nuclear reactor by a 1,000-pound explosive would cause enough damage to disperse into the atmosphere tons of radioactive debris. That’s bad enough.

But it’s likely to be much worse. According to David Rossin, a nuclear power expert at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation: “Destruction of the main feed pump or steam lines could create problems of decay heat and produce the release of fission products.” In other words, there’s the possibility of a core meltdown. Recall the China Syndrome?

Despite the handwringing from Washington, all of this has been known for at least a decade. The 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center prompted dozens of popular articles and technical papers on the vulnerability of nuclear plants to terrorist assaults, including attacks by kamikaze pilots. These scenarios were certainly available as a kind of playback to the al-Qaeda terror planners.

But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency charged with safeguarding the nation’s 103 reactors, remained strangely purblind to the threat. Prior to September 11, the NRC had never publicly considered the possibility that nuclear plants might be attacked by airplanes. Indeed, in 1982, the NRC caved to lobbying by the nuclear power industry and explicitly exempted nuclear plant owners from this trifling concern. “Reactor owners are not required to design against such things askamikaze dives by large airplanes,” the NRC’s Atomic Safety and Licensing board ruled. “Reactors could not be effectively protected against such attacks without turning them into virtually impregnable fortresses at much higher cost.”

Now, the agency is flush with ideas, many of them cranky and some unnerving. One scheme is to install anti-aircraft batteries around the plants, with orders to shoot down incoming planes. Another calls for the Air Force to constantly patrol the reactors with fighter jets. The most low-tech approach envisions each nuclear plant being entombed behind a bizarre sheath featuring steel poles linked with a net of steel cables. “Any cruise missile, warplane, or airliner would be shredded, its fuel ignited, and any explosive on board either detonated early or dispersed,” says Nicholas Berry.

But even if the NRC can concoct some scheme to protect the reactor, there’s little that can be done to keep terrorists from striking the nuclear power industry’s weakest link: spent fuel ponds. “Reactors are inside steel vessels surrounded by heavy structures and containment buildings,” said Gordon Thompson, a senior at the Institute for Resource and Security Studies. “Spent fuel pools, containing some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet, can catch fire and are in much more vulnerable buildings.”

These fuel ponds, which are rectangular pools about 40 feet deep, will catch fire at about 1,000 degrees Celsius. Even the NRC admits that once one of these ponds ignites, the fire will be difficult if not impossible to put out. It will burn for days, spewing radioactive particles into the air.

These pools are chock-full of cesium-137, a particularly lethal radioactive isotope. If a fuel pond catches fire, the NRC estimates that nearly all of the cesium 137 (on average between 20 to 50 million curies) will be released into the environment.

According to Robert Alvarez in an excellent report in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “A single spent fuel pond holds more cesium-137 than was deposited by all atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the Northern Hemisphere combined.”

In the 1990s, several nuclear plants looked at the extent of the fallout from a pond fire. A fuel pond fire at the Millstone Reactor in Connecticut could contaminate nearly 30,000 square miles of land, an area 6 six times the size of the state of Connecticut. A review conducted by Brookhaven National Labs predicted that a spent fuel fire at that plant outside New York City could cause 28,000 cancer deaths and do more than $59 billion in damage.

The only plan the NRC has come up with to alleviate this problem is to ship the waste and fuel rods via rail and truck to Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Of course, this doesn’t solve the problem, so much as it compounds it: exposing the fuel rods to terrorist attack on easily identifiable routes that travel through nearly every major American city. Meanwhile, Homeland Security Czar Tom Ridge and Spence Abraham shrug their shoulders. Nothing to worry about.

The nonchalance of Ridge and Abraham has not trickled down to the people who actually work at the nuclear plants, who, according to a new report by the Project on Government Oversight, remain understaffed, undertrained, overworked and underpaid.

POGO investigators interviewed 20 security guards from 13 different nuclear plants, harboring 24 nuclear reactors. Prior to 9/11, the NRC required utilities to deploy five to ten guards per reactor. Shortly after the attacks, the NRC upped this requirement. But at most plants this hasn’t resulting in the hiring of additional guards. Instead, the utilities have simply increased the overtime of the existing force, who are now compelled to work up to six consecutive days of 12-hour shifts.

It’s hard to imagine that this is a cost-saving measure, since the guards are paid so shabbily. POGO found that at six nuclear facilities the security guards were paid anywhere from $1 to $4 less per hour than custodians and janitors working at the same plant.

On top of that, they are understandably very anxious. Even prior to 9/11, the job was so stressful than more than 70 percent of the workforce quit after less than 3 years on the job. “If an attack took place, most of the guards would run like hell,” a security guard told one of POGO’s investigators.

It’s hard to blame him.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3