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Examining the Risks of Nuclear Terrorism

Examining the Risks of Nuclear Terrorism thumbnail

I was asked by the Argentinian energy think-tank OETEC for an analysis of the risks of nuclear terrorism for those who present it as a serious reason not to build up nuclear power. Here are those thoughts:

The standard risk analysis algorithm for making risk comparisons is to multiply the severity and magnitude of hazards with their probabilities of occurrence. This algorithm is considered by some to be callous, as it can excessively minimize a dreadful hazard which has a small probability, dooming some to experience it. As Nassim Taleb has argued in his black swan theory, scenarios with high risks and small aggregated probabilities like nuclear emergencies are still likely to occur at some point.

Yet the risk analysis algorithm still offers a place to begin in going beyond an intuitive risk perception that might be inflamed by imagination and what cognitive scientists call “heuristics”: mental shortcuts about risk based on associations rather than information and data.

The idea of a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant is a frightening one, and one easy to mentally envision. But we may subject this idea to three questions: I) What is the real hazard of a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant? II) What is the real probability of a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant? III) What are the alternative hazards and probabilities of other available options? I will ask this in a series of questions, addressing the possibilities of both ground/sea and air attacks in turn.

1. Ground/sea attack.

I) What is the hazard of a successful terrorist attack on a nuclear plant from the ground/sea?

The hazard of a successful nuclear terrorist attack could be a) sabotage to prompt a meltdown, or else b) the stealing of nuclear materials that could be used to build an improvised nuclear bomb or dirty bomb.

a) What is the hazard of a reactor meltdown and radioactive release? Fukushima and Three Mile Island are good examples as they may be considered typical meltdowns, unlike Chernobyl. After Fukushima, the typical dose in the 20 square kilometers in around the plant (the exclusion zone) in the first two weeks was one millisievert (msv). This typical dose was the same as the maximum dose to a civilian after the Three Mile Island meltdown. One msv is 100 times smaller than the lowest one-year dose clearly linked to cancer risk, conservatively observed to begin rising at a rate of 1% per annual dose of 100 msv [5]. For civilians near Fukushima, the increased risk is thus indiscernible, as the United Nations concluded. At Fukushima 176 workers received doses of between 100 and 670 msv with the vast majority on the lower end of this scale. Thus the cumulative health effects of Fukushima may be conservatively put at an additional two fatal cancers above the 35 probable ones that will already occur among the worker population. The two worker deaths are tragic, but on the very low end for deaths related to energy production, even wind and solar power. Finally, it is notable that new reactor models such as Molten Salt Reactors are designed not to not melt down under any circumstances, thus reducing the hazard of a terrorist attack or accident dramatically.

b) What is the hazard of an improvised nuclear bomb or dirty bomb? Certainly an improvised nuclear bomb with explosive capabilities could be very hazardous, but according to Robin Frost its construction is practically elusive to terrorist groups, considering the requirements of advanced equipment, machining, vacuum pumps, et cetera (Adelphi Papers 2005). Further, the fuel that might be stolen from a reactor is so poorly enriched it could not be converted into a nuclear explosive, as we have learned in the civil nuclear power negotiations with Iran.

By contrast with an improvised nuclear bomb, a dirty bomb is simply a device designed to disperse or emit radiation. While the idea of a dirty bomb had some public currency in the post-9/11 era, it has been observed since that the dread associated with the idea was overblown. Frost, a defense analyst with the Canadian government, claims “it is generally acknowledged that, in most plausible scenarios, such weapons would pose little material threat to the public due” to the low dosage they could plausibly emit (“Dirty Bombs”). Expert concerns around dirty bombs consequently tend to address the spreading of fear and causing of disruption by such an apparatus rather than the perpetration of physical harm.[10] Further, the materials considered most practical for making dirty bombs are used in medical applications and can not be found in usable forms in nuclear power plants. By contrast, the radioactive materials such as spent fuel rods located in nuclear power plants are effectively untransportable due to “the heat generated by large quantities of such material and the extreme exposure hazard from the intensity of the radiation.” Terrorists attempting to steal them would get burned and receive serious radiation poisoning long before they would have the chance to dissipate the materials.

II) What is the probability of a successful ground or sea intrusion of a nuclear plant?

The probability of a successful intrusion is considered to be quite low. Robert Wilson, an energy analyst, pointed out in a recent article on nuclear safety that “there has never been [a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant], and there appears to be no evidence that a plan to attack a nuclear power plant has ever moved beyond the basic planning phase in any terrorist group.” He described a recent report commissioned by the German Renewable Energy Federation into insurance costs for nuclear plant, which calculated there was a probability of terrorist attacks on nuclear plants happening 1 every 1000 operating years, as “junk science,” given there have so far been 15,500 operating years without one.

Nuclear plant intrusion is not considered to be an attractive goal for terrorists, for two major reasons.  The first reason is the relative difficulty of penetrating the security systems that are mandated of signatories to the IAEA Convention on Nuclear Safety, which include guards and electronic devices in communication with defense forces. The only reported successful intrusions of nuclear plants have been by Greenpeace activists who did not want to cause harm but to send an anti-nuclear message; in all cases they were observed and apprehended. As well, a Green Party representative once shot rocket-propelled grenades at a plant under construction but missed the empty core.

The second reason why nuclear plant intrusion is not considered an attractive goal for terrorists is that nuclear sabotage, short of obtaining material for a bomb, would not have immediate dramatic effects of the kind of public explosions terrorists favor. Rather, it would result in release of radiation with invisible and possibly long-term effects, at the worst. Only one group has managed to put one together–Chechen rebels in 1995–but they alerted the media before detonating the explosive intended to disperse the material (Frost, “Dirty Bombs”). Overall, it would be far easier to penetrate other facilities with home-made explosives and do far more dramatic and instantaneous damage.

2. Air attack

I) What is the hazard of a successful terrorist attack on a nuclear plant from the air?

The worst hazard is that a penetration would cause an explosion or fire that could initiate a meltdown and radioactive release. For the hazard of a meltdown and radioactive release, please see above.

II) What is the probability of a successful terrorist attack on a nuclear plant?

It has been experimentally proven that nothing short of a jumbo jet can penetrate a typical containment dome, which have 3-6 feet thick walls made of concrete reinforced with embedded steel bars and a half-inch steel liner. Opinions are mixed about whether a jumbo jet could penetrate the containment shell of a nuclear reactor.  In a review by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it was considered very difficult for a jumbo jet to target “small, low-lying nuclear power plants”  while “a sustained fire…would be impossible unless an attacking plane [including the fuel-laden wings] penetrated the containment completely” (Report to Congress 2006).

Even if a jumbo jet penetrated a nuclear reactor, the NRC concluded that “likelihood of both damaging the reactor core and releasing radioactivity that could affect public health and safety is low.” Steven Kraft, technical adviser for the Nuclear Energy Institute, pointed out that “the storage pools at Fukushima survived [with minimal damage] the fourth-largest earthquake in recorded history, hydrogen explosions that blew the roofs of three of the reactor buildings and the debris resulting from those explosions.” The New York Times accordingly observed that, “[t]errorists would have a far easier time igniting a conflagration at a toxic chemical plant or refinery than at a nuclear plant.”

III) What is the risk of not building more nuclear power plants?

More and more energy analysts and climate scientists are coming to the conclusion that nuclear power is an essential part of a decarbonized energy mix to avert global warming. In the words of climate scientists who wrote an open letter to those who influence policy-makers in the New York Times in November, 2013, “there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.” This is because while “[r]enewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy… those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires.” Renewable sources apart from hydro-electric power continue to play a minor role in energy production, and experienced energy analysts anticipate they will continue to do so due to many factors, including the intermittency of wind and solar power generation and the elusiveness of techniques for storing large amounts of electricity for a substantial amount of time.

Thus we must seriously consider that an associated risk of not using nuclear power to produce carbon-free energy on a large scale is climate change itself, with the hundreds of millions of climate refugees that are projected to be engendered by it in the coming century. These hazards—we need not look at probabilities, because these patterns are already in motion—are apart from the millions of respiratory and other deaths already caused by fossil fuel burning and generation every year. Only carbon-free forms of generation like nuclear power can avert these tides of displacement and death, and only nuclear power—which does not require a switch to another kind of generation, almost always fossil fuel whenever the sun is down or the wind does not blow—can avert them on large scales, as it already does.

In short, I believe that these are the kinds of scrutiny we must undertake when we decide a technology is “too risky.”

Energy Collective

25 Comments on "Examining the Risks of Nuclear Terrorism"

  1. Kenz300 on Mon, 1st Dec 2014 9:14 am 

    Nuclear energy is to costly and too dangerous…..

    The disasters at Chernobyl and Fukishima continue today with no end in sight. Fukishima has a 40 year clean up plan and at what cost.

    The cost to dismantle and store the nuclear waste from all the nuclear plants already built is more than we can afford. Nuclear waste needs to be stored FOREVER at what cost?

    There are safer, cleaner and cheaper ways to generate electricity. It is time to move past this nuclear mistake.


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  2. J-Gav on Mon, 1st Dec 2014 9:38 am 

    The production of nuclear energy is not nearly as carbon-free as this article would have us believe if you do a full life-cycle calculation. The mined and transported uranium, the years-long construction and also the operation all require carbon-based fuels… but the decommissioning is where the real fun begins.

  3. dave thompson on Mon, 1st Dec 2014 10:48 am 

    More fear obfuscation (I love that word obfuscation). The real fear should be directed at the long/short term ramifications of dealing with nuclear industries legacy of forever.

  4. dubya on Mon, 1st Dec 2014 12:12 pm 

    I guess I would break into the waste pool, saw off the drain pipe to let the water out then light a fire so it would be difficult to quickly fix. Seem to avoid all the personal risks above while still giving a pretty good chance at a big radiation release. Why attack a concrete containment building when the tin covered pools are relatively soft?

  5. penury on Mon, 1st Dec 2014 1:51 pm 

    Many years ago in the Military we had plans for all types of terrrorism, strangely nuclear power plants were very low on the priority list. The world is in far more danger from Fukishima that from terror attacks on power plant. Disposal of nuclear waste is probably the second worst problem with nuclear and the world currently can not or will not deal with it. If you want interesting reading on the subject try Hanford.

  6. J-Gav on Mon, 1st Dec 2014 2:54 pm 

    Addendum: I should have added, before speaking of decommissioning, that the notion itself assumes that a given nuclear plant has already made it through the multiple threats of earthquakes, flooding, grid break-down or terrorist attacks …

  7. ghung on Mon, 1st Dec 2014 3:24 pm 

    Being pro-fission requires that one assume that civilization will never collapse. It’s a sad state of affairs that requires a society to choose between fouling its atmosphere or leaving behind nuclear waste time-bombs; likely, in itself, a sign that collapse is imminent. Our options, collectively, decrease by the day, and the ones that remain pretty much suck.

  8. longtimber on Mon, 1st Dec 2014 5:51 pm 

    LOC – Loss of Containment., Na .. Just wait for grid error or event that islands them gadgets and wait for the water to Boil from them Pools as the diesel runs dry. Hitler and Stalin likely to have nothing in the carnage dept on OB and Harry Reid for halting underground safekeeping for “spent” rods for political reasons. (?) . Insert your reason here ___________

  9. Makati1 on Mon, 1st Dec 2014 7:24 pm 

    400+ nuclear bombs scattered around the world. ALL likely to be abandoned in the future when there is no energy/finances to manage/decommission them. 300,000+ TONS of used fuel rods, about 20,000 nukes, and so much “miscellaneous” waste in storage somewhere. Think Chernobyl/Fukushima in your backyard.

  10. Dredd on Tue, 2nd Dec 2014 6:44 am 

    Nuke-Qaeda is the real threat, not the boogie man.

  11. TemplarMyst on Tue, 2nd Dec 2014 9:32 am 

    Well, as usual, I’ll take the token pro-nuclear position in the comments section, albeit a bit late. (Have to work, you know 😉

    I think the article does a decent job of summing up the threats to current gen nuke plants, and the numbers are in line with others I’ve read.

    To the other comments on the waste and meltdown dangers of grid failure, earthquake, tsunami, etc, again, the risk numbers seem fairly small compared to the disaster that climate change will be.

    To J-Gav, I’ve read various reports on the total cycle carbon cost of nuclear, concluding on either extreme and in the middle. I tend to favor the lower end, but your mileage may vary, of course 🙂

    At the end of the day I don’t think we’re going to be doing much more nuclear. Not because of cost, not because of waste, not because of risk, but because we are moving towards a renewable paradigm which will require we fundamentally reshape the economics of energy.

    Renewable energy forms, love em or hate em, do not, and cannot, pay for themselves. When they are firing on all thrusters they drive the price of their electricity to near zero. So when they are producing all-out they are making no money.

    This will ultimately necessitate a change in how power distribution works and is accounted for, since all conventional (fossil+nuclear) will need to bow out. The renewable economy breaks their business models.

    What I’m not at all sure of is what will replace those models. Some sort of social cost sharing? Real time pricing? And how will the costs of the grids, maintenance, and operation be handled?

    I’ve no idea, but I keep watching Germany to see what shakes out. They’re not far off the point of needing to grapple with these issues. A bit more renewable build out and I think they’ll be there.

  12. Davy on Tue, 2nd Dec 2014 10:42 am 

    Temp, I think we have done a very good job here on PO of showing the unlikelihood of a renewable based economy. The numbers don’t support such an economy. The current examples do nothing to support such a future economy.

    Where are we going to get the resources to build out all this shiny new infrastructure especially when we see FF value to the economy declining. There is no evidence that transport can be accommodated by AltE.

    When we look at the systematic structure of the global economy we see complexity and energy intensity operating in tandem. There is no indication that AltE can deliver the required energy intensity. The variability of AltE with little evidence of affordable storage can’t deliver justice-in-time power as needed and required.

    Finally, there is no evidence lifestyles and attitudes will or can change at least in time. By the time attitudes change and lifestyles change it will be too late. People are not going to change until there is a crisis. We are screwed my friend so it is better to look to mitigation and adjustment strategies.

  13. TemplarMyst on Tue, 2nd Dec 2014 11:27 am 


    Apologies. I thought I may have posted enough in the past for folks to know that I’m in fundamental agreement with you about the fact a renewable economy won’t work. It’s one of the main reasons I continue to advocate for nuclear.

    The fact the numbers don’t add up does not seem to be deterring a power like Germany from pursuing this course of action, however, and that is where I was coming from. They are actively shutting down their nuclear reactors and continuing to ramp up their renewable efforts.

    I don’t see how any of this works, but they are committed to it and they are a huge player. If they continue on their current path they will run into the issues I raised in my reply above, but they appear to be headed in that direction anyway.

    Thus my questions on how they manage it all. Just to be very clear, though, I really think this is not a case of commitment or desire or ideology.

    It’s a question of math.

    And, just to round this out and refer back to the original article above, I think the author’s math on the risks of nuclear terrorism are pretty solid, should one be interested in looking at nuclear. Which, I get it. Not many folks even want to look in that direction.

  14. Davy on Tue, 2nd Dec 2014 12:06 pm 

    Sorry, Temp, fault is mine. I see your point and agree.

  15. Bob Owens on Tue, 2nd Dec 2014 2:34 pm 

    An interesting article until he gets to the nuclear sales pitch. I had to stop at that point. Why bother to attack a nuke plant when all you have to do is blow up a few transformers, transmission towers that supply power to the nuke plant? You can then sit back and watch it melt as the backup power gives out. The terrorists might not even be caught doing it. Also, no matter your opinion on nuclear, at the end of the day all we will have will be SOLAR. Can it support our current society? No, but it beats the stuffing out of chopping wood. We need to keep in mind that civilization could easily power down by 50% and still be as civilized as we are now. In that world solar just might work very well, thank you. Why do we insist on keeping these fossil systems working when a perfectly good world awaits us with a bit of solar and conservation? Everyone can start today. Add more insulation to your house; eliminate drafts; put on a sweater if you are cold; make a difference. You will feel better about yourself and the world.

  16. Davy on Tue, 2nd Dec 2014 2:50 pm 

    Bob, I don’t think we can power down 50% and still be civilized. We can opine that we could ditch lifestyles and attitudes that could power us down by 50% in the abstract. Sure we could live without a whole array of items and activities to get us to 50%. Yet, the mechanics of getting there in a managed way are surely not possible. Who is going to choose what and who gets powered down? What about economies of scale, vast distribution systems, and AG monocultures. These BAU structures are the norm today. How do you transition out of that? Hell, we can barely keep our economy going now with everything in working order. What happens when you start pulling the plug on economic sectors of the global economy? You don’t power down you crash down and hope to pick up some pieces.

    You are correct about Solar but it will not be the AltE kind except for some that is salvaged from what is left of industrial man. AltE requires some of the most technical of inputs and manufacturing. There is no future in hyper complexity. The solar we will have to embrace is pre-industrial solar. Solar that is back to the land solar. Hopefully we can become a hybrid people and utilize much useful infrastructure, technology, and knowledge. That is a huge hope because generally these things decay rapidly. In a generation allot could be gone. I wish you were right and I used to think this was possible in the beginning of my doomerism. Complexity cannot shrink it must grow.

  17. TemplarMyst on Tue, 2nd Dec 2014 4:03 pm 


    To add on to what Davy is saying, there are several intersecting problems which the power-down option tends to overlook, these in addition to what Davy mentions. I’ll raise just two for now.

    First, if my understanding of green house gas load is correct, we’re just starting to see the problems these will cause. If we’re to avoid hell on earth we actually need to go *backwards* on GHGs. I don’t see how we do that without a LOT of juice.

    Second, if we hit the crisis you are speaking of, we’ll very likely precipitate some sort of civil disorder, very likely on a massive scale. Once folks start to get hungry, the human animal will make a swarm of locust look like summer picnic on a mild summer day. We’ll take out everything, and I do mean everything.

    Obviously there are other implications of a power-down, whether it is relatively soft are hard.

    It seriously behooves us to figure out how to transition without the collapse, I think. Yes, yes, I know. The collapse may well come no matter what we do (well, okay, PROBABLY will come no matter what we do), but thinking what happens after will be anything less than Mad Max time I think is being less that honest with the potential for depredation our species is capable of.

  18. Bob Owens on Tue, 2nd Dec 2014 5:37 pm 

    Thanks everyone for your views. The world may indeed have an ugly collapse but it is not certain at this point. I remember from church a hymn that stated: It is better to light one little candle than to curse the darkness. We as individuals can take actions to improve the situations. Even if our actions are small we can take satisfaction that we are accomplishing more than our governments are accomplishing. In the end it may not alter a bad outcome for the world, but your personal position may be better. Only by living a better example of what we want the world to be can we achieve that goal.

  19. Davy on Tue, 2nd Dec 2014 6:44 pm 

    Well Bob you know Tainter said you can never rest with entropy at your back. If you do you lose. We should never give up hope. Facing collapse is not giving up hope. At some point we are going to have to jump into the abyss with hope. Doom is not about not having hope. It is about facing reality with hope. Doom seeks to prepare for change. Doom does not give up because you can’t give up. We will have to eat and stay warm. We can’t give up hope and lose effort when you get to that level or you will soon perish.

    Our best policy now is allowing a crisis to eliminate lifestyles and attitudes that have no place in a future of a struggle for survival. Just walking through a Walmart you can see all the things that can be eliminated. We should be able to maintain some complexity in the initial crisis phase as entropic lifestyles and attitudes are abandoned. Yet we should not hold on to hope that we can maintain complexity we see in BAU just because waste is being eliminated.

    Much of the complexity we have today is from entropic waste allowing economies of scale to lower the cost of complex items used in a variety of vital sectors. Nintendos have their place in complexity but they have little use in survival. We will have some complexity hang around after a fall kind of like we see after a tornado or hurricane some house stand others are wiped off their foundations. If we can be like a cat and try to land on our feet maybe there will be something we can relate to from our BAU life. But we will have to make the jump down there is no choice in the matter. That is nature’s way and only nature can overcome nature.

  20. PrestonSturges on Tue, 2nd Dec 2014 9:16 pm 

    The big soft targets are the piles of fuel rods that are sitting in little more than kiddie pools in outdoor sheds. Damage the pools and the rods will burst into flames, belching smoke thick with fallout. This can be worse than a core meltdown, because it is uncontained.

  21. TemplarMyst on Tue, 2nd Dec 2014 9:58 pm 

    Preston and Bob,

    So far as the fuel rods and taking out the transformers, this is my understanding of the risks involved, and why I think neither has been attempted before.

    At the end of the day I think both are more than a bit problematic, to the point where much softer targets exist and could be exploited if a terrorist or terrorist group were interested in wrecking havoc.

    The fuel rods in the pools could potentially be hit and cause some mischief if the fuel bundles are particularly hot. So let’s say you did drain a pool. The alloy the pellets are wrapped in is designed to withstand a tremendous amount of heat, and would take some time to melt. Hopefully someone is going to respond and put some water on them or move them to another pool. My wife is a firefighter in Waukegan, IL, and they are trained to deal with this sort of situation at Zion. (Well, okay, they get there first, and as they’re on their way they’re calling the folks who will actually deal with it).

    But let’s say they did melt. You’d have a situation not unlike Three Mile Island. Actinides are heavy and they tend to not go very far. Some would vaporize and cause some potential issue, but probably not enough to raise health risk factors by very much. A melting fuel bundle is not Chernobyl. It’s very unlikely it is going to explode. It’ll be more like a pool of lava until someone get’s it cool or it cools itself as it sheds heat.

    There are pictures of the meltdown material at TMI you can Google. It looks just like that – frozen lava. It didn’t even get out of the basement. And that was an active core, not a spent fuel bundle.

    So far as taking out the transformers, again, it is unlikely the terrorists are going to be able to take them out then sit around and wait for a meltdown.

    The external power loss will trigger the reactors to shutdown – for the moderation rods to lower and inhibit the fission process. The core is still hot but it’s a lot less hot than it was.

    The backups will kick in and people will respond, with any luck. If TEPCO had just realized the scale of their oversight and had started pouring seawater onto the cores the meltdowns would not have occurred. They were greedy and more than a bit arrogant and thought they would be able to get the cooling systems working again. One of the managers finally realized that just wasn’t going to happen and did finally flood the cores, but by then it was too late, the cores had melted, and the containment vessels were breached. Again, the overall effect has been a small increase in health risks to the nearby population, and an even smaller risk to those further away.

    I think the inherent difficulty in either attack approach is why al Qaeda chose to ram aircraft into skyscrapers rather than into Indian Point, which is quite close and could have been hit instead. It’s just not that easy to cause mass casualties with an attack against a nuke plant. It’s a tricky attack, can be foiled by physical and human security, and can be contained if response is reasonably quick and appropriate.

    Heck, KSM may even have watched the YouTube video of an F4 Phantom being railgunned into a concrete slab to test the efficacy of the outer protection shell of a standard US nuke plant. The plane basically vaporized, with no penetration. You can watch it yourself if you’re interested.

    So that is my admittedly inexpert view of why it would be much easier to just detonate an IED in a school, in front of a busy skyscraper, or outside an airport terminal, than it would be to attempt an attack on a nuke. If you want mayhem, there are much cheaper and easier ways to go.

  22. toolpush on Wed, 3rd Dec 2014 1:35 am 

    I maybe a little late on this topic, but if I was going to attack a Nuclear power plant in the US. Pick the correct one. A BWR, West of the NE centre of population, and on the Mississippi river system. Maybe the Ohio river valley. You would need a group of men,1/ take the control room, 2/ drill holes in bottom of fuel pool, and load plastic explosive. If hole from explosion is not big enough, repeat and make sure the pool can not be filled. 3/ Blow up main water circulation pumps. Once pumps and fuel are taken care off, create as much damage as possible on electrical control circuits and cooling water pipes/valves. At this point, the plant will beyond recovery, but you would hold the fort as long as possible. Did I mention this was a suicide mission, but the people that would be doing this, has no problems is finding willing people. The radioactive air goes to the east coast and all the radioactive cooling water goes down the river and the food basket.

  23. Davy on Wed, 3rd Dec 2014 8:06 am 

    No need to worry MSM says it is a false alarm.

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