Are Nuclear Plants Really Terrorist Targets?
On September 11, 2001, three fully fueled transcontinental airplanes became terrorist weapons, causing a huge amount of direct damage and killing more than 3,000 people living and working in the United States. Though terrorist attacks are nothing new, the scale and impact of these three coordinated attacks from the air caused a complete revaluation of America’s vulnerability.
There have been literally thousands of articles, papers, classified evaluations, and opinion pieces that discuss the vulnerability of nuclear power plants to attack from nefarious people bent on producing maximum damage to our people. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent already; some of the increased security measures have ongoing expenses that add tens of millions of dollars every month to the bill. It is an effort that causes many knowledgeable security experts to shake their head in disbelief. The wasted resources of time, intellectual effort and money are preventing decision makers from making improvements in far more important areas.
When I observe and read about the measures that have been taken to protect nuclear power plants (and, I might add, domestic military bases) against terrorist attacks in the period since 9-11, I am reminded of an old story. You might have seen or heard one version or another of this same tale, but here is the one that I like.
In the wee hours one morning, the shore patrol on a major naval base was making his rounds. When he came to the club parking lot, he noticed a rather strange sight. There was a sailor wandering around under the only working light in the parking lot. The sailor appeared to be looking for something; he would stop and pick up bits of paper, rocks, and even a small bench and peer intently for a time.
Sometimes he would get on his hands and knees and look really closely at the pavement under the lifted rock. Every time he got to the edge of the lighted area, he would turn so that he remained under the lamp. The shore patrol watched him pick up the same rock and look under the bench several times. The sailor was obviously a bit intoxicated and was acting frustrated, so the shore patrol decided wipe off his smile and interrupt the amusing scene.
“Can I help you?”, the shore patrol asked.
“Sure. I am trying to find my keys so that I can get home before my wife wakes up for work.”
“I noticed that you have not tried looking along the path back to the club. Isn’t that your car way over there? What makes you think that you lost your keys out here?” The shore patrol pointed back to the club, which was about 100 feet away and to the lonely car that was nowhere near the light.
“Not really, but the club is locked up and this is the only place in the parking lot where I can see.”
The shore patrol – a rather ordinary sailor most of the time – chuckled, shook his head, took pity on the sailor and drove him home. The next morning, the sailor awoke with a rather heavy head, went back to the club and found his keys at the bar where he left them.
Just in case you missed the relationship between the people making decisions about security measures and drunk sailors, think about the implications of exhaustive, repetitive searching in well lighted areas while ignoring rather obvious possibilities for finding what you are seeking.
Nuclear plants are not natural targets. They are surrounded by protective shells that are generally constructed of several layers of thick, strong materials like concrete and steel. I have seen physical displays with portions of these containment vessels exposed – a typical example was a wall more than three feet thick reinforced with closely spaced steel rebar that was about the same diameter as my forearm. I am not a huge person, but I have been getting to the gym on a fairly regular basis for about 30 years.
In the extremely unlikely event of breeching the containment shell with anything less than a penetrating weapon with better capability than those designed to attack armored tanks, there are still more obstacles between an attacker and his ability to cause the release of radioactive material. I have a pretty active imagination, but I have a very difficult time conceiving of a possible path for releasing enough of the material in the core in a manner that would cause any injuries. In addition, nuclear plants have buffer zones, fences, a large security force, and a number of other measures that put them at the very bottom of my long personal list of concerns. I worry more about the possibility of getting hit by lightning on a sunny day on my way home from winning the New Jersey lottery. (I never buy lottery tickets and do not live in New Jersey.)
When considering this issue, it is instructive to think about the winners and losers from the focus on nuclear plant security. Remember these two axioms – one man’s cost is another man’s revenue, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
- Firms that provide security services and equipment naturally make more money if they can make their customers feel a bit insecure about the security that their previous expenditures already provides.
- People that have made a career out of working against nuclear power developments will obviously strive to make it seem that they are prime terrorist targets with weaknesses that can only be overcome by shutting down the plant and removing all of the fuel to a location that has yet to be invented.
- Most ominously, people that make an obscene amount of money selling oil, coal and natural gas make even more money selling fossil fuels at the higher prices that result when nuclear power is restricted in its ability to compete and expand.
The reason that I find that particular group’s motivation to be ominous is that there is a known relationship between some oil interests and the financial strength of some terrorist groups. When fear of terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants is raised to the level that now exists, despite all facts and arguments provided, the already high artificial barriers to new construction are increased.
Since people have been repeatedly told that the mere threat of an attack against nuclear plants is a cause for concern, the terrorist groups have been given a way to fulfill their mission at a very low cost. All they have to do is to make a few vague threats or leave a few innocuous documents in a place where they will be found and they can cause millions of people to worry unnecessarily and cause many millions of dollars to be wasted protecting against imaginary threats. Those actions also help delay that inevitable time when nuclear power plant construction again begins at a rate that will cause a dramatic shift in the world’s energy markets. Every month of delay caused by irrational fear puts billions of dollars into the pockets of fossil fuel suppliers.