Texas study says nuclear units at risk from air, water attacks

The Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project of the University of Texas has issued a 33-page study on protecting U.S. nuclear facilities from terrorist attack and re-assessing the current ‘design basis threat’ approach used by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Since 2001, the U.S. nuclear industry has spent over $2bn on security enhancements to their physical protection systems. However, it is difficult to know if those enhancements have been adequate, according to the report drafted by Lara Kirkham, a graduate research assistant, with Alan Kuperman, PhD.

Kuperman is coordinator of the NPPP. Kirkham is a retired. The report was done following a request by the secretary of defense, Kuperman said. It was prepared for the Pentagon on an unclassified basis, Kuperman said in a news conference.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) issued a rebuttal to the Texas report in a blog placed on its web site Aug. 15. “Nuclear plants are widely acknowledged to be the best-defended facilities among the nation’s critical infrastructure,” NEI said.

The news release issued in connection with the report generated much media attention. It cited about eight major ocean-side nuclear stations that it claims are not prepared to deal with attacks from the sea.

The project is part of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas. The report says there are shortcomings in the design basis threat (DBT) system used by NRC and the Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Defense (DOD).

The DBT, by definition, is only the level of threat against which facility operators themselves are required to design protections. “In practice, the DBT typically comprises a lower level of threat than the credible, worst-case threat to a facility,” the report said.

At NRC, the DBT does not require nuclear power plants to defend against aircraft attacks. The report says that NRC deems aircraft attacks beyond the DBT and says private security forces cannot provide surface-to-air missiles or fighter aircraft.

“The industry thus relies on elements of the government, like the FAA and North American Aerospace Defense Command, to detect, deter, and defend against airplane attacks,” the report suggests.

When it comes to potential waterborne attacks, the report notes that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) believes NRC has not done enough to protect critical but vulnerable infrastructure like cooling-water intake structures.

“The operator of one nuclear power plant rejected an offer by the Department of Homeland Security to install free barriers for protection against waterborne threats, apparently based on the costs of maintaining the barriers,” the report said.

The latest revision of the DBT did not include two weapons commonly used by sub-state adversaries – rocket-propelled grenades and 50-caliber sniper rifles, according to the Texas report.

“The NRC views nuclear security as a balancing of risks and costs, with the understanding that achieving a “zero” level of risk is impossible,” according to the University of Texas authors.

At the same time the report says there are problems in alternatives, such as game theory. Game theory replaces conventional risk analysis by taking into account the strategic nature of terrorists.

“If the DBT approach is retained, the report’s main recommendation is for the DBT to be made uniform for all nuclear facilities posing risks of catastrophic nuclear terrorism – which includes nuclear power reactors and facilities containing nuclear weapons or significant quantities of fissile material – aiming to reduce the risk of successful terrorist attack on such facilities as close to zero as possible in light of available resources,” according to an executive summary.

Report suggests larger government role

The report also argues that government should “provide the necessary supplementary security, which currently does not occur in many cases, rather than to reduce artificially the posited threat as now is done.”

Despite the “relatively low probability” of a nuclear terrorist the consequences of such an attack justify efforts to further minimize risk, according to the Texas study.

Terrorists could be motivated to commit radiological sabotage at nuclear units “to provoke public fear, showcase their ability to inflict societal harm, or potentially induce an energy crisis in areas dependent on power reactors.”

Another reason provided by the 9/11 Commission Report is that an attack on a nuclear plant might not have the desired symbolic value for some terrorists, the report notes.

The University of Texas report also says there has been reported threats or attempts made against reactors in places as diverse as Russia, Western Europe and South Korea.

Perhaps the biggest concern for nuclear security is an “insider threat,” the report notes. “An American citizen, suspected of al Qaeda membership, worked for five different US nuclear power plants from 2002 to 2008 after passing federal background checks,” according to the report.

A streaming audio replay of the press conference about the report can be found at the website: http://blogs.utexas.edu/nppp/.

About Wayne Barber 4201 Articles
Wayne Barber, Chief Analyst for the GenerationHub, has been covering power generation, energy and natural resources issues at national publications for more than 20 years. Prior to joining PennWell he was editor of Generation Markets Week at SNL Financial for nine years. He has also worked as a business journalist at both McGraw-Hill and Financial Times Energy. Wayne also worked as a newspaper reporter for several years. During his career has visited nuclear reactors and coal mines as well as coal and natural gas power plants. Wayne can be reached at wayneb@pennwell.com.