Categories: Chernobyl / Energy issues

26 April 2010

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Taking the terror out of nuclear power

Terrorists are spoiled for choice. Their targets are very varied: wedding parties in Jordan; tourists in Bali; train and bus passengers in Madrid and London; skyscrapers in New York. Radioactive material from nuclear power programmes is bound to be in the frame, not least because the public has a horror of it.

The nuclear industry offers many opportunities for attack aside from a “hit” on a nuclear power station. Radioactive materials are regularly in transit for defence, energy, health, and industrial purposes. Then there are storage facilities for many different types of contaminated material and there is plant for the manufacture of isotopes or nuclear fuel.

So we have to consider risks of very diverse complexity, ranging from a spectacular event with massive consequences down to a crude “dirty” bomb that does little harm. Or even a bizarre poisoning, as happened to former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London when his food was seemingly spiked with the isotope polonium-210; an event that sparked international outrage, but caused “only” one serious, and one lesser, injury.

But we should remember that Bhopal, a chemical accident, killed more people than Chernobyl, the nuclear world’s most famous disaster. There are all sorts of ways of poisoning large numbers of civilians.

Whether accidents are caused by operators, component suppliers or by regulatory negligence or freak occurrences, their consequences can be replicated in some form by terrorist action in any field of life in any location.

Assessments of the likelihood of accidents of different types, including from terrorist action, on a wide range of civil, military and industrial installations are made all the time. This is mostly for the benefit of stakeholders, particularly governments and their publics, insurance companies, banks and firms, which put at risk human life, the environment and capital.

For sure, risk evaluation is an inexact science precisely because there are always so many unknown considerations to be accounted for, such as terrorist plans. However that does not mean that assessing risk is futile. Risk-related calculations are the product of hundreds of years of measurable experience and analysis of potentially dangerous activities. They provide a solid foundation for managing them within acceptable probabilistic boundaries.

Time to take the terror out of nuclear power

Since terrorists trade in fear and the nuclear industry has always attracted more than its fair share of that we need to assess the realities of radioactive risk soberly.

Moreover, with modern concerns about shortfalls in electricity generation, global warming and terrorism, we never had a greater obligation not to lose our nerve. We might even use this moment to turn the terrorist threat on its head by strengthening the arguments for nuclear energy. At the very least, we could and should use this opportunity to properly calibrate the overall risks we face. This might help us all live peaceably with the peaceful atom.

Reasons to worry

Greenpeace, while exaggerating the risks extravagantly, correctly cites evidence suggesting terrorists might have targeted nuclear facilities already:

“Maps of Britain’s most nuclear sites were reportedly found in the boot of a car linked to the July 2005 London bombers. A terrorist strike on the storage tanks holding dangerous liquid high-level radioactive waste at Sellafield has the potential to kill over two million people.” 1

In Australia in 2005 three suspected terrorists were arrested near to Sydney’s Lucas Heights nuclear facility. Much earlier than that there were suggestions in the U.S. that Ramzi Yousef, convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, actively encouraged his followers to strike nuclear reactors. These incidents sparked worldwide concern about the susceptibility of nuclear facilities to terrorist attack. 2

Since 9/11 the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), the UN’s nuclear watchdog, has increased its intervention in all things radiological. Most prominently, in July 2005, it substantially strengthened the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM). 3

The IAEA has also clearly identified the major risks that are of concern when it comes to countering the terrorist threat.  As IAEA Secretary General Mohamed ElBaradei repeatedly states, there are four major potential nuclear hazards subject to terrorist risk:

  1. theft and proliferation of nuclear weapons;
  2. creation of a nuclear bomb using stolen materials;
  3. spread of radioactive material by a crude explosive device;
  4. an attack on a nuclear facility or transport vehicle. 4

Assessing the risks

Before we examine each of these four risks in turn, we shall briefly review the broader picture that surrounds this discussion.

The products of manmade radiation are ubiquitous. There are millions of them in many thousands of locations. According to IAEA, there are 438 nuclear power reactors, plus 284 research reactors and 250 fuel cycle plants in operation, including uranium mills and plants that convert, enrich store and reprocess nuclear material. Virtually every hospital in the world uses radioactive isotopes to detect and treat disease. And in industry radiation is commonly used to check welding, look for cracks in buildings, safeguard pipelines and other structures or to preserve food. This reality cannot be wished away. 5

Nuclear power stations are, and always have been, some of the best-protected, arguably the best, industrial facilities in the world (more on the specifics later). Moreover, by road, rail, sea and air millions of radioactive packages are moved every year. There never has been a single loss of life from radiation exposure in the entire history of such shipments being made. Barring Chernobyl the safety record of the entire nuclear-related industry has been remarkable.

Accident prone is terrorist prone?

It seems to make sense to suppose that technologies which have shown themselves to be accident prone are also likely to be fertile for terrorists. Disasters triggered by careless humans could be replicated by malicious ones. It follows that the less scope there is for accidents, and the fewer accidents that have occurred historically, the less a terrorist is likely to think that technology is handy for his or her purposes.

The record of accidents and their external consequences across the energy field, including mining, storage, processing, transport through to waste disposal, throw light on the risk and potential consequences of terrorist actions.

Nuclear energy has an unsurpassed safety record among the major electricity-generating sources. For instance, there have been 0.006 fatalities per GWe.year of nuclear electricity produced compared to 15 times as many fatalities per GWe.year for natural gas; and 1000 times as many fatalities per GWe.year for coal, oil and hydropower. 6

Since the 1970s Europe’s hydro electricity industry has had a good safety record. However, in China around 170,000 people died when Banqiao and Shimantan burst in1974; almost 30,000 immediately and the rest because of latent effects. A decade earlier Europe too had its fair share of catastrophic accidents. In 1959, 400 people died in France when the Fréjus reservoir ruptured; and in 1963, 2000 died in Italy because of crumbling ground at the Vajont reservoir.

My intention here is not to undermine one fear by promoting others. All energy is bottled force, and the entire energy industry has mostly handled its controlled release in a highly responsible manner. As for the risk of terrorist assault, that risk remains very low even for prime targets like those hit on 7/11 (more on that later).

There is, then, nothing special about nuclear power as opposed to many other industrial practices, except that it is more closely guarded with more built-in resilience against accidents (or malicious tampering). The chemical, biological, defence, aviation, oil, gas, hydropower industries all – like nuclear – suffer from occasional accidents. All can theoretically produce or be turned into weapons of mass destruction. Take the accidents at Chernobyl, Piper Alpha, Sandoz, and Bhopal, all of which killed people. It is not at all clear that terrorists could have replicated them or that it would have been strategically intelligent for them to do so.

But let us suppose that a terrorist group is unpersuaded by these arguments.

Theft and proliferation of nuclear weapons

A properly run and monitored civil nuclear programme does not produce either plutonium or uranium that is suitable for use in atomic bombs. Reactor-grade material cannot be converted into bomb-grade material easily either. That is why the best long-term and most secure remedy for disposing of bomb-grade uranium and plutonium from dismantled weapons is their dilution into relatively harmless fuel for use in nuclear reactors. 7

Operational nuclear bombs represent the last line of resistance for the national defence of any country that has them. They are among the best-defended items on the planet. The bombs are guarded by the military of strong democratic states in the UK, US, France, Israel, India, or by disciplined armies in countries such as China, North Korea and Pakistan. Not one has ever been stolen. Though a few have been lost at sea, some of which have been recovered, some of which still lie in deep water beyond the reach of even the world’s most advanced technology.

There have also been long-held worries about the protection and transportation of nuclear bombs in Russia. To close this avenue of attack, considerable sums of money from both Russia and the international community have been allocated to bolster security measures relating to the storage and transit of nuclear weapons over that country’s massive landmass. 8

The best protection, as already described above, comes from the conversion of Megatons to Megawatts. To Russia’s credit, an average 30 tonnes of weapons-grade material has been converted every year since 1999 to produce electricity.

We must also never forget that terrorists have demonstrated resourcefulness in planning and executing complex missions. Moreover, because the creation of fear is their main aim, it is wise to assume that they believe that a kamikaze effort to steal a nuclear weapon might “promote” their objective even if the chances of success was near to zero.

The real atomic threat

The major nuclear threat does not come from Russia: it comes from proliferation of nuclear weapons. The more unstable the regime that acquires them the more probable it becomes that one will be stolen, let off in anger or by accident. For instance, had nuclear proliferation ever extended to Iraq or Afghanistan, the chances of ready-made nuclear weapon falling into button-pushing hands would be high. Or as Mohamed Elbaradei, Director General of the IAEA, said when he won the Nobel Peace Prize :

“I think the most single important issue today is to make sure that nuclear weapons will not proliferate beyond the eight, or nine, countries that already have nuclear weapons; and absolutely make sure that none of these nuclear weapons or this nuclear material will fall into the hands of any extremist or terrorist group, because if they got hold of this material, they would use it.” 9

The work of the IAEA does to ensure that countries develop nuclear energy without creating the ability to produce nuclear bombs is critical. Over many decades IAEA inspections, surveillance and monitoring have ensured that there is full international accountability for how civil nuclear programmes are managed. Iran is the most recent example of corrective action being taken when the rules set down internationally are ignored. 10

Creation of a nuclear bomb using stolen materials
The IAEA’s database reveals that the known flow of stolen bomb-grade material to terrorists has been very small, if any: “…no confirmed theft or seizure since 1995 has involved more than 1% or 2% of what would be needed for constructing a nuclear bomb. These small quantities are not grounds for complacency, however.”11

One would like to be able to say that it is not easy to make a nuclear bomb. Of course to make a sophisticated or effective nuclear bomb is extremely taxing, even for states. This is particularly so using military-grade plutonium, which requires an implosion that is hard to achieve. The charity Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) explains: “Getting implosion right remains a significant technical challenge today for anyone who is not a nuclear-weapons expert.”

However the NTI adds:

“Unfortunately, for a gun-type bomb, there can be little debate – it is quite plausible – that a resourceful and well-organized terrorist group such as al Qaeda would be able to make at least a crude gun-type device, with a yield perhaps as large as the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima. An implosion-type device, as would be necessary for plutonium, or if the terrorists had not managed to acquire enough HEU (highly enriched uranium) for a gun-type explosive, would be a much more substantial challenge – but here, too, the possibility cannot be excluded.” 12

While the world’s bomb-grade uranium and plutonium are well protected inside secure compounds by armed guards, there is too much of the stuff in too many locations for the comfort of some observers. 13

The Soviet Union produced an estimated 1,200 tonnes of HEU and up to 400 tonnes of military-grade plutonium. Russia alone dismantles around 2,000 nuclear weapons per year, with each bomb relinquishing roughly 3-4 kilograms (kg) of plutonium and 15 kg of HEU.

All this bomb-grade radioactive sources must be catalogued, tracked and stored. Developing a point made earlier, that explains why the G8 in June 2003 made commitments to spend $20 billion to help Russia dismantle its weapons of mass destruction, including chemical ones, safely. It is also explains why substantial international assistance has been given to countries such as Ukraine to decommission their weapons securely by using dilution to turn swords into ploughshares.

Spread of radioactive material by a crude explosive device

A dirty bomb can be made with explosive wrapped around radioactive material taken from a medical, industrial or other sources. The quantity of such sources numbers in millions. The IAEA says that they can be found in virtually every country in the world. It also admits that around 100 countries have inadequate monitoring to even detect the theft of such material; and that 50 countries are not subject to its supervision at all.

The IAEA concentrates on making safe those sources that pose the most risk: “IAEA has identified radioactive sources used in industrial radiography, radiotherapy, industrial irradiators and thermo-electric generators as those that are the most significant from a safety and security standpoint because they contain large amounts of radioactive material – such as cobalt-60, strontium-90, caesium-137, and iridium-192.”14

According to the IAEA, there is a huge difference between an atomic bomb and a dirty bomb in terms of destructive potential. The likely effects of a dirty bomb explosion would be for radioactive particles to be spread in the nearby vicinity. It is extremely unlikely to cause huge casualties from radiation poisoning, though radiation sickness at a localised level is a real danger. The most significant impacts would be fear and disruption caused by the clean up operation and evacuation of people living in contaminated areas. 15

The tragic events in Goiânia , a major city in Brazil, provide insight into this assessment. In 1987, stolen medical equipment from an abandoned radiological clinic accidentally killed four people after thieves cut 20-gram capsules of caesium-137 into pieces and distributed them to friends around Goiânia. More than 80 houses were destroyed in the decontamination effort. 16

The IAEA has catalogued other accidents and incidents relating to stolen or misused radioactive material, including a 1996 case when Chechen rebels left a container with caesium-137 in a Moscow park. The threat from dirty bombs is, therefore, serious.

The recent admission in a UK court by Dhiren Barot that he planned to use a radioactive “dirty bomb” provides further proof of terrorist intent. Nonetheless the prosecution did not dispute defence claims that no funding had been received for the projects, nor any vehicles or bomb-making materials acquired. The prosecution also said that expert witnesses estimated, “if the radiation (dirty bomb) project had been carried out, it would have been unlikely to cause deaths, but was designed to affect about 500 people.” 17

In response to such threats, the IAEA is tightening worldwide regulatory protection measures. It is taking practical action where it can to make safe unsafe equipment. One high-profile example of this is the special help given to clean up the debris from Russia’s ageing fleet of civil nuclear icebreakers, atomic-powered military submarines and other relics of the Soviet Union’s decrepit pose as a superpower. Regarding hospital equipment, clean up work is underway across the world, including Sudan and Afghanistan.

An attack on a nuclear facility

In the aftermath of 9/11 insurers withdrew their cover against terrorist attacks from nuclear facilities. This forced governments to take on the entire insurance risk instead. To assess the extent of their new liabilities the British, Canadian and Japanese government turned to Dr. John Gittus, a probabilistic risk expert and adviser to Lloyds of London, to help them quantify the magnitude of the hazards involved. He used two different methodologies to make his appraisal.

One of them was Bayes’ Theorem. [18] It uses a mathematical formula to calculate the probabilities of certain outcomes using sparse data; in this case the events of 9/11. For the purpose of his study Dr Gittus assumed that nuclear power plants were as much at risk as other “world terrorist targets” such as the ones hit on 9/11. He then looked at a number of scenarios drawn from incidents of varying severity that have actually occurred, or could occur, accidentally at nuclear power stations and which might, theoretically, be induced purposely by terrorist action.

The other method was based on the EU’s Externe or ‘Joules’ study and its equivalent from the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineers. [19 ] This methodology is applied to examine the impact of nuclear energy on health, crops and the environment in monetary terms in relation to the external risks of electricity-generation to workers and communities.

In short, Professor Gittus recalculated the proportion of total risk – including accidents, politics, market etc. – that derives specifically from terrorism after 9/11. He concluded that, “the risk was very low before the terrorist attacks occurred and it is still very low despite the revision we have made: much lower than the risks presented by coal, gas, oil and hydro…”

His findings partly encouraged insurers to reinstate most of their protection against terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities.  Premiums increased, of course. His risk assessment also helped keep the possibility of building a new generation of pressurized water reactors (PWR) alive in the middle of the War on Terror. 20

As we have already established, the risks posed by the nuclear industry are not unique or new. The civil nuclear industry expanded rapidly in the shadow of post-second-world-war terrorism and the threat of World War III. Throughout its existence the protection standards and safety record of the entire Western nuclear industry has been superb, a fact many opponents now accept. 21

Western reactors were designed to resist earthquakes and tornadoes. The almost complete core meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979 demonstrated how robust Western-standard safety measures protect human life and contain mishaps firmly. Chernobyl, on the other hand, highlights how each country’s record and reactor type needs to be assessed separately to assess specific levels of risk accurately.

Long-held plans

Counter measures to handle terrorist incidents have been in place since the very dawn of this once secretive industry. For instance, nuclear power stations in the U.S. have long-held plans, enforced by regulators, to cope with a small force of ground attackers equipped with automatic weapons, one or two insiders, and truck bombs. Most nuclear energy producing countries have similar resources and capabilities to thwart attacks. Moreover, after each safety-related problem or perceived risk is noted new lessons are learned.

Since 9/11 fighter aircraft and air traffic control have been alert to the potential of hijackers crashing planes and have redoubled their efforts to enforce no-fly zones over sensitive sites. More thought is also been given to protect the cooling towers, water-intake pipes of nuclear plants from attack from the sea or rivers from boats carrying bombs.

A 2002 computer simulation by ABS Consulting found that a fully laden Jumbo jet could not penetrate nuclear containment buildings – including reactors, used fuel storage and transportation containers – in the U.S. even if it struck their most vulnerable point with the maximum force at a perpendicular angle. The result, they reported, was “some crushing and spalling (chipping of material at the impact point) of the concrete”.  [December 2002, Deterring Terrorism:  Aircraft Crash Impact Analyses Demonstrate Nuclear Power Plant’s Structural Strength.]22

A spectacular test was once made in the U.S. when a bomber was flown deliberately into a pressurised water reactor (PWR) containment building at 500mph. It left two marks on the concrete marking the spot where the plane disintegrated. The containment building was virtually undamaged.

As already stated, not all the world’s nuclear reactors or facilities possess the same robust containment defences as U.S. plant. Some of the early reactors, for instance in Russia, were rushed into production as part of the Cold War arms race without proper consideration for public safety.

Moreover, most nuclear reactors – like New York’s Twin Towers – were not designed specifically to withstand a direct hit from a fully laden jumbo jet. But all newly built reactors will take 9/11 into account, just as will the design of the skyscraper that will eventually replace the World Trade Center in the middle of New York City.

Transport of nuclear material

Nuclear material is transported around the world on a mammoth scale. It travels in tens of millions of packages per year, most of which has nothing whatever to do with the civil nuclear industry or weapons.  Around 95% of these packages contain material used in medicine, agriculture, research, manufacturing, non-destructive testing and the exploration of minerals. 23

Their transport is governed by IAEA regulations that are adopted by most countries. They take account of the different levels of risk posed by different radioactive materials relating to their ability to contaminate the environment, disperse and cause harm to humans.

The most at risk and best-protected packages relate to large quantities of potentially dispersible radioactive materials – breathable light radioactive particles, often in powder form, as opposed to solid – transported by air.  One example of such material is cobalt used for the sterilisation of medical equipment, another is plutonium.

Such packages are classed by the IAEA as Type C. These packages must contain, shield and prevent the dispersion of their contents, even in the case of an on-board explosion, air collision or crash landing. They are designed and tested to remain intact at a minimal velocity of 90 m/sec onto an unyielding surface – something that does not exist in nature – at their most vulnerable angle. All Type C packages are required to withstand being engulfed in flames for 60 minutes at 800°C. They will survive intact submerged in at least 200 metres of water, the depth of the continental shelf. Even if a package was to free-fall from a great height at speeds well in excess of 90 m/sec, a Type C package is unlikely to experience a more demanding set of circumstances than the IAEA’s strict tests. 24

Indeed, in 1984 a “Type B” package – those that do not carry large amounts dispersible radioactive material but which still require strict protection – was rammed at 100 miles per hour by a locomotive train. The train was destroyed, the package escaped with very little damage. 25

“Over several decades of transport, there has never been an in-transit accident with serious human health, economic or environmental consequences attributable to the radioactive nature of the goods.”26


There is little reason to doubt that nuclear features on terrorism’s target list. Even a symbolic hit on Three Mile Island, for instance, would arguably have a massive psychological impact on the American public. However that tells us nothing about how much real risk such a strike might unleash.

The worst nuclear accident we have actually seen was Chernobyl. Even if it could have been replicated by terrorists, it is possible to argue that the accident demonstrates what a poor target most nuclear power stations represent. Train crashes and explosions in bars produce a more dramatic immediate “kill”. According to statistics released by the UN’s Chernobyl Forum in 2005, Chernobyl killed 56 people – including latent deaths – when its core meltdown and explosion contaminated most of Europe with low-level radiation in 1986.  It is worth noting that the capacity of a nuclear accident to cause casualties after the event from low-level radiation is now under review based on the evidence of Chernobyl’s health impact over the last twenty years. But even that assessment had to wait decades: too long, surely, for a terrorist looking for a “spectacular”? 27

It is tempting to compare Chernobyl to the three thousand or so people who were killed immediately or soon afterwards at Bhopal, India, in 1984, when 40 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a Union Carbide chemical plant. Yet it is important to remember that even Bhopal was so startling and memorable because it was such a rare and horrendous event. The causes were complex. The accident certainly exposed how a failure of management and regulatory bodies can lead to disaster, whether or not one accepts Union Carbide’s sabotage claim as the cause, one of the causes or as a red herring. It also revealed how a protracted legal battle to find somebody to blame did not help the victims. 28

The best safeguard against industrial accidents – even terrorism – of any kind is good regulation, management and security. If we keep our nerve, as opposed to panicking, we have a responsibility to reassess the roles of every party involved in any particular risks in the energy field in the light of experience.


The energy industry is all about managing bottled force and that fact makes its business hazardous. There are, then, real risks to public safety and the environment in every sector of the energy industry; but put in context risks associated with nuclear power are mostly relative, understandable and acceptable.

It is best not to tempt fate by making bold predictions. A survey of some of the “weaknesses” of nuclear power to terrorist assault tends to reassure, however. Whilst the public’s fear of radiation makes radioactive material an attractive proposition, it seems likely that nuclear provides a rather poor “bang” for the terrorist “buck”. As a low-level, crude “dirty” risk, nuclear material is merely one of several candidate materials. As the scene for spectaculars, nuclear targets may seem rather well defended to be very ripe.

All in all, whilst nuclear power certainly presents a target, it is one of many. Even amongst radioactive risk, the civil programme does not provide opportunities to compete with those offered by the post Cold War ex-Soviet military sources.

Doing without nuclear power so as to avoid terrorist threat would be perverse. This technology presents no better terrorist opportunities than many of the other fuels which would have to replace it.

Ends (dated 2006)

1 Nuclear power: wrong answer
2 Nuclear link to Sydney terror case, Monday, November 14, 2005
3 IAEA Press Release 2005/03
States Agree on Stronger Physical Protection Regime
4 (See a recent post-9/11 progress report from the IAEA

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