Countering threats to nuclear power plants


nuclear power plant
  • Fuel shortages and environment concerns have resulted in governments across the world reinvesting in nuclear power. These plants represent a very real terrorist target.

  • Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, several Western nations have introduced combat air patrols to safeguard the air space around reactors.

  • Several drills conducted in the US have found that nuclear power plant security has been found wanting and that more needs to be done to ensure that the plants cannot be overrun.

Although the threat of a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant preceded the events of 11 September 2001, concern in this direction has increased in response to possible planned attacks by Al-Qaeda or Chechen separatists. A foiled Chechen rebel assault on the Russian city of Nalchik in October 2005 would have involved an attempt to hijack and fly one of five aircraft into a nuclear power station. Papers released in the UK in February 2005 under the Freedom of Information Act (2000) revealed there were more than 40 cases of potential security breaches at UK civil nuclear sites from 2004 to 2005.

At best, an attack on a civilian nuclear facility would cause disruption to domestic and commercial energy supplies. At worst, it would involve radioactive fallout, mass fatalities and long-term health effects. Released radioisotopes would contaminate buildings, land and vegetation. However, as a nuclear power plant attack has never happened, attack assessments are often based on worst-case scenarios such as a violent impact from an aircraft crash or an internal explosion. Effects of a radioactive release on the surrounding and more distant populations can only be judged against data gained from nuclear accidents, such as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Attack by aircraft

Reprocessing plants are prime targets for terrorist attacks. Once fuel rods are unable to sustain a nuclear chain reaction, they consist of many highly radioactive isotopes. The rods are stored in dry casks within water-filled ponds inside the reactor building for between five and 10 years before being transferred to flasks outside the nuclear power plant. In the UK, the tanks at Sellafield contain 2,400 kg of cesium-137, the radioisotope responsible for the main offsite radiation exposure from Chernobyl. Only 27 kg of this was released during the Chernobyl disaster. While there is insufficient published information on the likelihood of such a release, varying suggestions range from 1/10,000 of the contents of one tank to more than 10 per cent of the total inventory.

A primary concern is the possibility that terrorists could crash an aircraft into a nuclear power plant. However, the UK nuclear industry insists that the threat to its nuclear power plants is minimal compared to those abroad. This is because plants in Russia and the former Soviet Union do not have such safety conscious designs and their operatives are less well trained than in the UK. In addition, the former Soviet Union had, and still has, security problems at plants. Commercial reactor containment structures - which are made of thick steel-reinforced concrete - are designed to prevent dispersal of most of a reactor's radioactive fission products should a loss of coolant and subsequent meltdown occur in most circumstances other than a chemical explosion or similar energy-dispersing event.

The nuclear industry maintains that an attacking plane would have to penetrate the containment completely to cause a fire. This theory is illustrated by the meltdown accidents at Three Mile Island in the US and Chernobyl in the Ukraine, both of which resulted from a combination of operator error and reactor design flaws.

Enhancing security measures

But even an unsuccessful attack could have economic and social repercussions and further reduce public confidence in nuclear power generation. While improving safety has been the main objective of the nuclear industry since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, enhanced security measures will be vital in reducing the likelihood or subsequent effects of an attack.

Saboteurs would most likely need insider knowledge to disable reactor control and multiple safety systems simultaneously. To deter this, nuclear plant employees in the UK and US must undergo criminal background checks and psychological tests. Some plants also require employees to abide by the two-person rule, which prohibits employees from working alone inside some areas of the nuclear power plant. Most nuclear power plants also have multiple fences and cameras both around the perimeter and throughout the plant site.

In the US, nuclear power plant defences include a dedicated contingency response force, biometric and other sophisticated plant access equipment, physical barriers and illuminated detection zones, intrusion detection aids (including several types of detection fields, closed-circuit television systems and alarm/alert devices) and bullet-resisting barriers at critical areas.

However, reports by US groups such as the General Accountability Office and Project on Government Oversight have discovered that armed guard forces at some nuclear power plants are not equipped to counter a large, heavily armed group.

Preventing invasion and sabotage

After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in the US, the French government deployed point air-defence systems around its reprocessing plant at Cap de la Hague and French defence officials tightened security around Europe. In the UK, the Royal Air Force Tornado F3 fighters based at Coningsby, Lincolnshire, are responsible for intercepting hijacked commercial aircraft deemed a threat to nuclear sites.

In 2004, evidence emerged that civilian and military aircraft were breaching no-fly zones around UK nuclear power plants. From 1999 to 2004, UK plant operators have reported close flying aircraft - including 56 breaches by military aircraft between 2000 and 2003. On 24 April 2002, a jet flew close enough to the Torness reactors in Scotland to trigger perimeter fence intruder alarms.

Counter-terrorist activities also include intelligence gathering, surveillance of suspect people and taking measures at airports to detect and prevent hijackers. Counter-measures in place at nuclear power plants consist of interlocking personnel, procedural, physical and technical security systems so that damage to any one component of the system does not result in a security breach.

The UK Atomic Energy Agency Constabulary has been transformed into the Civil Nuclear Constabulary - a stand-alone armed force on defensive duty at Sellafield and Dounreay that can make arrests at non-nuclear locations such as ports, airports and railway stations. The constabulary also patrols up to three miles from nuclear sites and can stop and search people and vehicles.

Security culture

New reactors that will come on stream in the coming decades will contain safety improvements based on operational experience. There have been major upgrades of nuclear power plants in Russia, parts of the former Soviet Union and also former Soviet satellites such as Bulgaria.

To deal with the spent fuel threat, the US National Academy of Sciences has recommended shifting fuel rods in the pools and installing water-spraying devices to reduce the likelihood of fire igniting and releasing radiation in the event of an air attack. Long-term storage of nuclear fuel rods in dry casks is being encouraged to reduce the chances of significant radiation release.

At Sellafield, the operators have surrounded the tanks with a steel building and commissioned specialist machinery to empty the tanks. There are recommendations that liquid waste be immobilised as soon as it is removed and then disposed of geologically.

Exercise drills found wanting

In the US, the anticipated severity of an attack is specified as a "design basis threat". A revised design basis threat that took effect in October 2004 was still viewed by observers of the industry as not adequately representing the credible terrorist threat faced by nuclear power plants. The regulatory body in the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, requires nuclear power plants to conduct regular 'force on force' exercises to test its ability to defend against the threat.

However, many trade-offs are necessary in order to make the exercises as realistic and consistent as possible without endangering participants or regular plant operations and security. But in March 2006, the Project on Government Oversight revealed in testimony before US Congress that its investigations found the design basis threat assessment did not always take into account commonly used weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades and 50-calibre rifles with armour-piercing rounds.

These assessments also occasionally reduced the size of a truck bomb necessary to defend against and minimised the impact of an active insider helping the terrorists, because the industry claimed it was too expensive for them to protect against such a threat. In each of the three exercise scenarios, some or all of the attackers were able to enter the protected area. Furthermore, attackers made it to the targets in two of the scenarios.

In order to comply with the licensing regime in the UK, nuclear facilities must be designed and operated to cope with accidents predicted in the plant 'safety case'. This has been decided on the basis of its predicted accidental likelihood as well as the severity of its outcome - but the safety case is not required to take a deliberate attack into consideration. Also, while nuclear power plants built during the past 10 years have incorporated security factors at the design stage and are part of the regulatory requirement, these do not apply to the design of some older nuclear power plants, which have had additional security features retrofitted.

International co-operation on nuclear safety

Since 11 September 2001, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been focused on improving the security standards of nuclear power facilities against terrorist attacks.

However, there is a lack of international attention focused on the necessary global standardisation of safety requirements for the growing number of nuclear power facilities across the world. The US and Russia have begun to investigate the minimum threat that nuclear security systems should be designed to defeat and are working on establishing a binding commitment on global standards for securing nuclear material between states. The most recent efforts centred on a conference in March in Moscow, aimed to develop measures for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) members to improve nuclear security.

Nuclear security and the concern surrounding the security of nuclear material has received significant and sustained attention during the past five years with the creation of international regulations, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative in 2003.

During this time, the US national security strategy has also consistently highlighted nuclear weapons as one of the most serious security threats faced today. Attention has also been placed on securing of material from parts of the former Soviet Union.

Growing out of controls

In the developed and developing world, there are a significant number of states currently seeking nuclear power. Brazil has stated that it plans to expand its nuclear energy sector, however in 2004, its Lower House committee on environment and sustainable development rated safety at its existing power plants as poor. Japan has the third largest nuclear generation capacity in the world, and the government is planning to build another 11 plants by 2010. China has approved a new blueprint under which it will build 31 more nuclear power plants by 2020 and Turkey has been in talks with the US recently to discuss its declared need for an investment of 54,000 megawatt of energy by 2020.

Increasing populations and industrial capacity combined with depleting natural resources have led to growing energy shortages. As a result, nuclear power is emerging as a potential key resource for energy security and this provides the potential for fierce competition in the not too distant future.

These emerging nuclear states, together with the US, Russia, UK, France and other nuclear power producers, are understandably protective of their industries and have allowed each other to continue to operate under only domestic regulations in a growing and increasingly competitive industry.

The potential for and significant risk of accidents at nuclear power facilities increases rapidly if states are left to self-regulate. A case in point is Japan, where five people were killed in 2004 when hot water and steam leaked at Mihama nuclear plant. In March 2006, the Japanese Shika nuclear power plant was temporarily closed due to safety concerns. This year, Satoshi Fujino, public relations officer at the Citizen's Nuclear Information Centre in Tokyo, attributed the high levels of accidents in Japanese nuclear power plants on inadequacy in government regulation and a culture within the industry of covering up mistakes.

International view

Together, China, Japan and Brazil constitute more than a quarter of the world's population and, as such, have growing energy needs. By 2050, China aims to have 50 per cent more power plants than the US has today - and the US currently has 23 per cent of the world's operational nuclear reactors.

Energy consumption growth in Brazil is expected to average more than four per cent annually until 2010. Given the projected increase in nuclear activity in the coming decades, unless more decisive regulation and standardisation is agreed upon, every country in the world is at risk from the environmental and economic fallout that would be caused by a nuclear power accident.

If nuclear states are allowed to self-regulate their nuclear power plants, this creates a potential for disastrous accidents that will certainly set back the development and integration of such countries into the global economy, given that a nuclear power plant contains more than a 1,000 times the radiation that is released in an atomic bomb blast.

For example, depending on weather conditions, a nuclear plant meltdown could result in as many as 44,000 near-term deaths from acute radiation syndrome in the initial days after exposure or as many as 518,000 long-term deaths from cancer for people living within 80 km of the plant. According to a 2005 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the economic damages within 160 km could exceed USD1.1 trillion.

The US and Russia are currently on good terms with these growing nuclear powers and it is important that their energy needs are addressed in a way consistent with international safety requirements. The evolving relationship between the US and India is an example of how the US can give a state incentives to keep to international regulations. India is to become a partner of the US in nuclear energy in exchange for guarantees of adherence to the highest standards of safety and security for its civilian facilities, with permanent inspections by the IAEA.

However, the US has not yet taken the lead on the issue of nuclear safety and remains focused on issues of terrorism and nuclear security. The 2007 budget allocated USD1.7 billion to preventing nuclear terrorism, while the Department of Energy's allocated USD3.7 billion of its budget (nearly 40 per cent) to nuclear security administration.

A mandate to act

The US is not necessarily the best placed to deal with international concerns of nuclear security. Rather, it should fall to international, non-aligned bodies to address the threat of nuclear accident and avert the possibility of a serious incident and its global consequences.

In a speech to mark the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in April 2006, Mohammed El Baradei, director of the IAEA, drew attention to the importance of sharing information, setting clear safety standards, assisting with safety upgrades and reviewing operational performance. However, the IAEA has not made any significant moves to implement such measures and standardise safety. The IAEA has a mandate to ensure mistakes and lax procedures are not covered up.

The US cannot be relied upon to provide every country with incentives to adhere to recommendations and guidelines. These need to be replaced with international rules and obligations that the IAEA enforces.

Author: Avital Wagner, Jane's Country Risk content editor

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