The Future of Nuclear Terror

This month marks Chernobyl’s 19th anniversary. It comes at a time of continuing concern about the motivation and ability of terrorists to inflict an intentional Chernobyl upon the United States. Despite Washington’s recognition of the risk, 31/2 years after the attack on the World Trade Center, it is still attempting to sort out what to do. The dithering ill serves national security.

Testifying before the Senate Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence on Feb. 16, FBI Director Robert Mueller succinctly laid out problem.

Commenting that 9/11 “al-Qaida planner Khalid Sheik Mohamed had nuclear power plants as part of his target set,” Mueller ominously warned, “… (W)e have no reason to believe that al-Qaida has reconsidered.” Indeed, the director placed nuclear power plants at the top of the hit list of infrastructure targets that terrorists would be tempted to attack.

The FBI’s conclusion begs the question: Has the United States done all it can to prevent or reduce the consequences of nuclear sabotage since Sept. 11, 2001?

The answer: Not really. In fairness, the country’s nuclear infrastructure is more secure today. Utilities have bolstered defenses against ground assaults. Intelligence is more focused. Airport security better protects against airplane hijacking. Yet, the National Academy of Science’s April 6 report on the vulnerability of nuclear spent fuel pools belies the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s persistent mantra that our nuclear plants are effectively immune.

Prompted by nongovernmental scientists’ claims that terrorist ground or air assaults could drain the pools and ignite the highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies resulting in consequences exceeding Chernobyl, Congress asked the academy for an evaluation. The NAS conclusion: “A terrorist attack that partially or completed drained a spent fuel pool could lead to … the release large quantities of radioactive material to the environment.” The academy added that NRC’s efforts to belittle the risk are “not prudent.”

As an immediate remedy, the NAS called upon utilities to modify the spent fuel configuration and density to allow better cooling and water-spray systems to douse any terrorist ignition. It further recommended a plant-by-plant survey of unique vulnerabilities.

The NRC will require further political prodding to implement recommendations since the academy is only an advisory group. Unfortunately, the terrorists’ calendar to do us harm may not comply with the commission’s labored pace.

The commission must also do a better job in protecting power reactors, a matter the academy addressed marginally. It remains unclear whether the NCR’s post-9/11 “Orders” requiring beefed up plant security meets the challenge.

Guards repeatedly have complained they neither have the training, armament or sufficient personnel to foil a sophisticated ground assault. The commission has not provided the public with ample information to judge the results of mock attack exercises intended to test defenses. Furthermore, the NRC still clings to the mistaken belief that intelligence will provide timely warning of an increasing attack risk environment to bolster security.

However, one fact remains clear: nuclear power plants are naked against a Sept. 11, 2001-like air attack. Plaintively, the commission argues that the “defense in depth” engineering built into reactors to prevent serious accidents should suffice although it continues to “study” the matter. It contends that the first line of defense ought to be airport security; if that fails, military aircraft could intercept suspicious airplanes.

Unfortunately, this “action plan” is flawed. Engineers did not design reactor containments to withstand an intentional, high-speed impact by a large commercial airliner. Then there is the risk that such an attack could disrupt “soft” vital lifelines outside the containment that could prompt a meltdown.

Airport security already has failed to prevent general aviation “buzzing” of reactors. Other defensive measures could be deployed. However, the commission opposes antiaircraft guns or missiles at reactor sites fearing that they could shoot down innocent planes. The fact that other countries pursued this path without mishap has not made an impression.

There yet remains passive defenses. Utilities could put in place large World War II-like barrage balloons to entwine light aircraft in their tether.

Another option, heavy steel I-beams can be placed over reactor sites to fragment incoming aircraft dramatically reducing their ability to penetrate sensitive structures. The beams also could anchor defensive steel cabling and netting to further deflect impact. The NRC has before it a formal petition for rulemaking to accomplish this option.

Unfortunately, the commission is not likely to implement such insurance as long as it clings to the view that attacks are improbable and plants are well protected. This year’s Chernobyl commemoration should serve as a useful reminder of what can happen if the presumptions prove wrong.

BENNETT RAMBERG is the author of Destruction of nuclear energy facilities in war: The problem and the implications and Global Nuclear Energy Risks. He served in the Department of State’s Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.