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U.S. nuclear reactors remain vulnerable to attack, theft, sabotage

Aug. 28, 2013 at 5:23 PM   |   Comments

AUSTIN, Texas, Aug. 28 (UPI) -- U.S. commercial and research nuclear facilities are vulnerable to theft of bomb-grade nuclear materials, sabotage or major attack, a study found.

The conclusion by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs was reached in a study of 107 commercial nuclear reactors and research facilities that was conducted under contract to the U.S. Department of Defense.

"... None of the 104 commercial nuclear power reactors in the United States is protected against a maximum credible terrorist attack, such as the one perpetrated on Sept. 11, 2001," the study said. "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, nor against airplane attacks, nor even against readily available weapons such as high-power sniper rifles."

Among the findings in the report -- "Protecting U.S. Nuclear Facilities from Terrorist Attack: Re-assessing the Current 'Design Basis Threat' Approach" -- are that some U.S. nuclear power plants are vulnerable to terrorist attack from the sea, but are not required to protect themselves against such attacks.

Among those reactors are ones in 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.

Three civilian research reactors in the country are fueled with bomb-grade uranium. These facilities are not, however, protected against a posited terrorist threat, unlike military facilities that hold the same material.

The three reactors are at the University of Missouri, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

"The facilities are supposed to convert to non-weapons-grade, low-enriched uranium fuel," the report said. "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."

According to the project's report, some U.S. government nuclear facilities (operated by the Pentagon and Department of Energy) are protected against terrorist threats but others remain vulnerable. The reason: Security officials claim that terrorists do not value the sites or that the consequences of an attack do not rise to a catastrophic level.

The project recommends Washington require a level of protection at all potentially high-consequence U.S. nuclear targets -- including both nuclear power reactors and civilian research facilities with bomb-grade material -- sufficient to defend against a maximum credible terrorist attack.

The project recommends Washington require a level of protection at all potentially high-consequence U.S. nuclear targets to defend against a maximum credible terrorist attack. If private-sector organizations running nuclear facilities cannot provide the required security, then the government should pitch in.

"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, the reports co-author. '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.

"It would be a tragedy if the United States had to look back after such an attack on a nuclear reactor and say that we could have and should have done more to prevent the catastrophe.

"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 project's report was presented last month at the annual meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management.

Topics: Sept. 11
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