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Targets for Terrorism: Nuclear Facilities

Author: cfr.org editorial staff
Updated: January 1, 2006
This publication is now archived.

Could terrorists target U.S. nuclear power plants?

Yes. In his January 2002 State of the Union speech, President Bush said that U.S. forces “found diagrams of American nuclear power plants” in al-Qaeda materials in Afghanistan. An al-Qaeda training manual lists nuclear plants as among the best targets for spreading fear in the United States. The government is taking the threat seriously: in February 2002, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued an advisory to the nation’s 103 nuclear power plants that terrorists might try to fly hijacked planes into some of them. And eight governors have independently ordered the National Guard to protect nuclear reactors in their states.

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How vulnerable are U.S. nuclear weapons sites?

Not very, most experts say. Nuclear weapons production and storage sites are guarded by security forces supervised by the Department of Energy. John Gordon, the administrator of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, has called such sites “one of the last places a terrorist would think about attacking and having hopes of success; the security basically bristles.” But a watchdog organization, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), charged that security at U.S. nuclear weapons complexes was inadequate and that hundreds of tons of weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium could be stolen, sabotaged, or even detonated. The Department of Energy dismisses such criticism, adding that security has been stepped up since September 11. Experts note that a terrorist looking to steal nuclear weapons or weapons-grade material would have a much easier time in Russia or Pakistan than in the United States.

How might terrorists attack other U.S. nuclear facilities?

U.S. homeland security planners are most concerned about the following scenarios:

  • A massive release of radiation after a nuclear plant is hit with a bomb delivered by truck or boat.
  • A September 11-type attack using a plane as a guided missile to crash into a nuclear facility.
  • Sabotage at a nuclear facility by an insider or by intruders.
  • A ground assault on a nuclear plant by a commando team attempting to blow up the plant.

Suicide terrorists might also try to break in to a nuclear plant and quickly build and detonate a “dirty bomb”—a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material. Attackers could also use conventional explosives to blow up some nuclear waste or nuclear fuel, thereby spewing radioactive materials into nearby areas.

Finally, experts warn that terrorists might target the pools in which nuclear reactors’ highly radioactive waste (“spent fuel”) is kept. This waste, which is kept cool by water, could ignite if exposed to the air.  One nuclear expert, Robert Alvarez, has said that this would cause a “catastrophic fire” that could be “worse than a reactor meltdown.”

What kind of damage could such attacks cause to a nuclear power plant?

Experts say that an attack on a nuclear power plant, all of which are guarded by private security forces hired by the plants and supervised by the NRC, couldn’t lead to a nuclear explosion. The danger, they say, is that attackers could cause a meltdown or a fire or set off a major conventional explosion, all of which could spew radiation into nearby cities and towns.

What would happen if a plane crashed into a nuclear plant?

No one knows. U.S. nuclear power plants are built to withstand hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and small plane crashes. Their “containment walls” are typically made of two to five feet of reinforced concrete with an interior steel lining. But the NRC didn’t anticipate the type of attacks seen on September 11—large passenger airliners loaded with fuel slamming into targets. Both the NRC and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have said that U.S. nuclear plants were not designed to withstand such an impact, and the NRC has ordered a study of plant designs to look at what would happen in such a scenario.

Have terrorists threatened specific nuclear plants?

In January 2002, former NRC chair Richard Meserve said that “since September 11, there have been no specific credible threats of a terrorist attack on nuclear power plants.” But he added that in light of “the high general threat environment, nonetheless, we and our licensees have maintained our highest security posture.”

On October 18, 2001, there was what was initially called a “credible threat” to the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, the site of America’s worst nuclear accident, which occurred in 1979. The threat closed down two nearby airports for four hours, and military aircraft were sent to patrol the area. But by the next morning, the threat was dismissed and the alert canceled.

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