Are America’s nuclear-power facilities uniquely vulnerable to terrorist attack? A new report by the Department of Defense says none of the 107 reactor sites in the US have adequately protected themselves against terrorist attack, but the bar seems a little high — at least as McClatchy reports:
All 107 nuclear reactors in the United States are inadequately protected from terrorist attacks, according to a Defense Department-commissioned report released Thursday.
The report, by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas at Austin, warns that the current security required of civilian-operated reactors fails to safeguard against airplane attacks, rocket-propelled grenades and more than a small handful of attackers. …
“There are 104 nuclear power reactors and three research reactors, none of which are protected against a 9/11-style terrorist attack,” Alan J. Kuperman, an associate professor at the university who co-authored the report, said during a conference call Thursday.
He said current policies “leave U.S. nuclear facilities . . . vulnerable to credible terrorist threats of theft of bomb-grade material and sabotage that could cause a massive meltdown and release of radiation.”
At first this sounds damning, but, er … how is a nuclear reactor supposed to prevent a 9/11-style terrorist attack by airplanes? That would require each facility to have at least its own battery of anti-aircraft artillery, and potentially its own air force, complete with standing orders to shoot down civilian aircraft that get too close and fail to respond. It’s highly unlikely that existing facilities could strengthen their buildings to withstand a collision with a fully-loaded jumbo jet in the manner that the Pentagon did, for the most part.
There are similar problems with the other standards being applied in this blurb. The only way for nuclear facilities to safeguard against RPG attacks is to control the ground for a thousand yards in any direction, the maximum range for RPG systems. That’s over a half-mile, which would have to be closed to traffic, housing, industry, and so on. In California, the state’s biggest road (Interstate 5) goes right past San Onofre, for example, and would have to be rerouted in an almost impossible fashion. Similarly, guarding against “more than a small handful of attackers” would require an army to accomplish, although it is the most reasonable criterion on this list.
The solution for these issues isn’t going to be found at nuclear-power sites, not unless we put them all in Death Valley. The US has to provide airport security to prevent a 9/11-style attack on a reactor, not the reactor facility, and we should be controlling our borders and policing our communities well enough to prevent RPG attacks and vast armies of terrorists from getting within shooting range of these facilities as well. I’m all for improving security around nuclear reactors, but it’s also important to have realistic expectations about what can be done by the facilities themselves. This sounds more like satire than serious analysis.