More than 100 nuclear facilities in the United States are still vulnerable to terrorist attacks, even after the catastrophic 9/11 attacks, according to a new report from the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.
Such attacks could take two forms, according to the report, including theft of bomb-grade material that could be used to make weapons, and attacks intended to cause a reactor meltdown, according to the research.
“More than 10 years have come and gone since the events of September 2001, and America’s civilian nuclear facilities remain unprotected against a terrorist attack of that scale,” said Professor Alan J. Kuperman, Ph.D., coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project. “Instead, our civilian reactors prepare only against a much smaller-scale attack, known as the design basis threat, while the government fails to provide supplementary protection against a realistic 9/11-type attack.”
Design basis threat (DBT) is based on potential malicious activity that could lead to dire consequences, as well as identification of inside or outside adversaries, characteristics of the adversaries and design and evaluation of physical protection systems, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The new report reveals that nuclear facilities nationwide do not have uniform DBT, and the level at which reactors and research facilities are protected varies according to the materials, location or which government agency regulates them. The level of attack at which facilities are required to protect against is often much lower than a 9/11 style attack, Kuperman said.
The report also reveals that even after the 9/11 air attacks, nuclear facilities are not required to defend against airplane attacks, or even against high-power sniper rifles. Further, a number of coastal cities are potentially at risk because DBT does not require defense against seaborne attacks. Included are areas in California, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Texas.
In a recent press conference addressing specifics of the report, Kuperman said although DBT is currently inadequate to protect against some attacks, the alternatives to DBT would not necessarily be an improvement. Instead, he said, DBT needs to be strengthened and uniform for all nuclear reactors and research facilities, in order to protect against theft of materials and “sabotage that could cause a massive meltdown and release of radiation.”
Perhaps most alarming is the fact that current NRC standards require commercial reactors to be able to defend themselves against attack by a group of approximately five or six terrorists. The report finds that insufficient, especially since on 9/11 there were 19 attackers.
Specifically, the report cites an example of possible consequences of a hypothetical attack at a power plant 35 miles from New York City. Such an attack could result in 44,000 short-term deaths and 500,000 long-term deaths from radiation, and an estimated economic impact of $2 trillion.
“If there’s a fire after an attack like that it could take out essentially New York City or the western third of Connecticut,” said Peter Stockton, a senior investigator for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO). “But DBT is cost based, and the cost is always deemed too high to strengthen the security at these plants.”
The 9/11 Commission discovered that al Qaida had considered targeting a nuclear power reactor, but later changed its plans.
Predictably, the NRC has a different opinion.
“The NRC has added numerous requirements in the wake of 9/11 to increase security at the plants,” said Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesperson. “Specifically, one of the requirements was for every operating nuclear power plant to put in place additional resources and methods for dealing with large fires and explosions of any cause so that they can maintain key safety functions even after such an event and these features have been repeatedly inspected by the NRC.”
But the new report reveals NRC-licensed research and test reactors are not required to protect against the DBT. Only power reactors must be protected, even though there is a risk of theft of nuclear materials at the other facilities.
“Less than two dozen miles from the White House and Capitol Hill, a nuclear reactor contains bomb-grade uranium, but it is not required to protect against even the lesser 'design basis threat' of terrorism," said Kuperman. “We know where the weak spots are when it comes to nuclear facilities, so it would be the height of irresponsibility to fail to take action now.”
The report recommends that the NRC upgrade its DBT to a level “sufficient to defend against a maximum credible terrorist attack.”