US nuclear reactors vulnerable to terrorist attack

Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project

More than 10 years after the 9/11 hijackers considered flying a fully loaded passenger jet into a Manhattan area nuclear reactor, U.S. commercial and research nuclear facilities remain inadequately protected against two credible terrorist threats – the theft of bomb-grade material to make a nuclear weapon, and sabotage attacks intended to cause a reactor meltdown – according to a new report prepared under a contract for the Pentagon by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (NPPP) at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs.

The report, “Protecting U.S. Nuclear Facilities from Terrorist Attack: Re-assessing the Current ‘Design Basis Threat’ Approach,” finds that none of the 104 commercial nuclear power reactors in the United States is protected against a maximum credible terrorist attack. More than a decade after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, operators of existing nuclear facilities are still not required to defend against the number of terrorist teams or attackers associated with 9/11, against airplane attacks, or against readily available weapons such as high-power sniper rifles.

Of particular concern, the NPPP report finds:

·         Some U.S. nuclear power plants are vulnerable to terrorist attack from the sea, but they are not required to protect against such ship-borne attacks. Reactors in this category include Diablo Canyon in California, St. Lucie in Florida, Brunswick in North Carolina, Surry in Virginia, Indian Point in New York, Millstone in Connecticut, Pilgrim in Massachusetts, and the South Texas Project.

·         Another serious terrorism danger is posed by three civilian research reactors that are fueled with bomb-grade uranium, which is vulnerable to theft to make nuclear weapons. These facilities are not defended against a posited terrorist threat, unlike military facilities that hold the same material. The three reactors are at the University of Missouri in Columbia, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is located just two dozen miles from the White House in the Washington, D.C./Baltimore suburb of Gaithersburg.  The facilities are supposed to convert to non-weapons-grade, low-enriched uranium fuel.  But they will

continue to use bomb-grade uranium, and remain vulnerable to terrorist theft, for at least           another decade, according to the latest schedule.

The NPPP report also notes that some U.S. government nuclear facilities – operated by the Pentagon and Department of Energy – are protected against most or all of the above threats. But other U.S. government nuclear sites remain unprotected against such credible threats because security officials claim that terrorists do not value the sites or that the consequences would not be catastrophic. To the contrary, the NPPP’s report argues, it is impossible to know which high-value nuclear targets are preferred by terrorists, or which attacks would have the gravest consequences.

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