Nuclear Resurgence, Part II
The issues raised by nuclear power have never been neatly captured by cost-benefit analysis; the case for nuclear power has always been shadowed by extraordinary concerns. The special nature of nuclear power can perhaps best be appreciated by conceding the best of all possible worlds from the standpoint of strident advocates of this energy technology. The best-case scenario for nuclear power, in short, is that the economic case for it grows stronger in the coming years, as prices for oil, gas and coal rise and the exploitation of renewable resources (wind, solar, geothermal) rises only slowly. Let’s concede, also, that the environmental case for nuclear power grows stronger in the coming years, with more urgent curbs on greenhouse gases and more effective means of storing nuclear waste. Finally, let’s concede that the technological case for nuclear power grows stronger in the coming years, with the advent and commercialization of a new generation of reactors that are simpler to build and maintain, produce less waste and leave little room for operator error.
Positing a best-case scenario for nuclear power is a useful exercise because it brings into focus what is possibly the most vexing issue posed by this energy source: the problem of security. No matter the strength of the economic, environmental and technological cases, nuclear power poses difficult security problems from two perspectives. First, nuclear-power plants present unusual opportunities for terrorists. As Graham Allison, author of the recent book, Nuclear Terrorism has written, “While nuclear power plants can be hardened, they are what the U.S. military calls a ‘fixed target.’ All fixed targets are vulnerable to attack if terrorists can muster sufficient force or corrupt an insider.” Second, nuclear power plants provide the means, both direct and indirect, to generate the fuel essential to the creation of nuclear weapons.
In this brief essay I will chiefly raise questions about the security of nuclear plants in the U.S. and their potential vulnerabilities to acts of terrorism. I will then raise the question of the extent to which nuclear-power generation, and the technologies that underpin it, contribute to the proliferation of nuclear weapons. As in
part one of this essay, I am drawing on both published sources and wide-ranging interviews with officials with nuclear operators, regulators and critics. My goal here is to highlight important questions that deserve more attention. I offer no definitive answers to these questions, but I must admit that, based on my review of the evidence, I do not believe that nuclear power plants pose inherently unmanageable security risks. However, the risks posed by nuclear plants are challenging – and it is by no means clear whether the existing counter-measures to a terrorist attack are sufficient. But let’s back up and start at the beginning:
No organized terrorist group has explicitly identified a nuclear power plant as a target, and security experts privately wonder why terrorists would take the risk of attacking a nuclear plant – and failing to create a spectacular hit – when they can achieve more certain results by assaulting a “softer” target, of which there are many in the U.S. What we might call the “low hanging fruit” view is widespread among nuclear-industry officials. They pointedly note in private conversations that as long as security protections for chemical plants and other vulnerable infrastructure targets, such as key bridges and tunnels, are virtually non-existent, terrorists are most likely to strike at these rather than nuclear plants. They are not complacent, but they say that their security efforts, while not perfect, have at least created a significant deterrent.
The potential for a doomsday scenario – terrorists taking over a reactor control room and engineering a meltdown, for instance – is real enough that post-9/11 nuclear-plant operators must act as if their plants are terrorist targets. Given this premise, how have they responded to the threat of terrorism?
In a word, seriously. Since 9/11 the nuclear industry has spent nearly $1 billion hardening security at these plants. At one typical nuclear plant, Grand Gulf, in Mississippi, one in five of the fulltime employees are now security officers, with 120 people defending the plant 24 hours a day. Security changes (some mandated by the Nuclear Regulator Commission and some not) are both obvious and complex. Employees at Grand Gulf plant once could enter the employee parking lot with a shotgun in their pickup trucks. No longer. Physical barriers now make passage into the perimeter of a nuclear plant cumbersome. A series of interior fences, topped with the latest in barbed-wire, mean that any attacking party must be skilled. Vehicles no longer can come close to secured areas and even those allowed to penetrate the plant’s perimeter are now subject to thorough human searches for bombs and weapons. High-tech countermeasures also raise the level of deterrence. For instance, hidden cameras, armed with night-vision lenses, peer into the darkness, searching for intruders. Motion detectors are linked to alarm triggers. Procedures for identifying employees – include fingerprint or eyescan matches at point of entry to secured areas – reduce the chance of impersonators entering the building that contains the reactor core. Every employee and visitor to this area is forced to pass through a single staging area where they are screened by both a metal-detector and a bomb-detector. A few armed security officers, meanwhile, are stationed behind bullet-proof glass in order to prevent terrorists from simply overwhelming the detection procedures by killing everyone in the room.
The doubts stem from a decision by the NRC to allow nuclear operators, through a trade association, to hire and maintain a team of attackers. The Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group, hired Wackenhut, the security company, to assemble an attack team and to mount training exercises on a regular basis. The NRC chose this same attack team to mount its exercises. Critics of the decision say that Wackenhut has a classic conflict of interest, since the company supplies the security officers for a large number of nuclear plants, meaning that in some cases a Wackenhut attack team “opposition force” will face a defense mounted by Wackenhut guards. One nuclear watchdog, who has investigated industry practices for many years and advises the NRC on security matters, asks, “Do you really believe that a Wackenhut attack team wants to make a Wackenhut guard team look like dogshit?” He insists that the potential for “cheating” is too high and that “even if force-on-force exercises are totally honest, no one is going to believe them.”
Wallace says the design basis threat is good enough. This claim is hard to evaluate since the specifics of the threat are secret. But the NRC has acknowledged that nuclear plants are not required to defend against an air attack of the sort that occurred at the World Trade Center. The NRC is currently considering whether to alter its requirement, in response to an objection by a citizen group. Industry officials say that, as a practical matter, an air attack would be difficult to mount and unlikely to create a catastrophic accident. Floyd says that terrorists would be “wasting an aircraft” by flying it into a nuclear plant. They’d have to fly the plane directly into a reactor, to start with, to have any hope of shattering containtment. Even then they’d likely fail. In 2002, the Electric Power Research Institute ran a computer simulation to assess the odds, concluding that a direct hit from a 450,000 pound Boeing 767 flying low to the ground and at a speed of 350 miles per hour would destroy a plant’s ability to make electricity but not break the reactor’s cement shield. While conceding that in such an attack employees at a nuclear plant would be killed, Floyd says the “likelihood of any wider problems is very, very remote.”
expressed here are those of the author.
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