Guarding Nuclear Reactors and Material from Terrorists and Thieves

By Bunn, George; Steinhausler, Fritz | Arms Control Today, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Guarding Nuclear Reactors and Material from Terrorists and Thieves


Bunn, George, Steinhausler, Fritz, Arms Control Today


For decades the United States has sought international standards to ensure that nuclear facilities and materials are physically protected against theft and sabotage. On September 11, the need for such an initiative became strikingly apparent as analysts pondered the other possible targets of a terrorist attack. What would have been the loss of life if, for example, a hijacker had crashed a fuel-laden jetliner into a nuclear reactor, causing a meltdown and dispersing radioactive material?

Indeed, just days after the attacks, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), made it clear that the attack had dramatic implications for the nuclear industry and for non-proliferation: "The tragic terrorist attacks on the United States were a wake-up call to us all. We cannot be complacent. We have to and will increase our efforts on all fronts-from combating illicit trafficking to ensuring the protection of nuclear materials-from nuclear installation design to withstand attacks to improving how we respond to nuclear emergencies."

Spencer Abraham, the U.S. secretary of energy, appeared before the IAEA to urge "maintaining the highest levels of security over nuclear materials." "We need to strengthen international commitments and cooperation on the physical protection of nuclear materials, particularly those that can readily be converted to weapons use," he said.

If terrorists were willing to kill thousands of innocent people in suicidal attacks against buildings symbolizing America's economic and military power, they would probably not hesitate to use truck bombs made of conventional explosives to attack nuclear reactors in order to create clouds of radioactivity like those produced by the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl. They would have little trouble acquiring anti-tank weapons that could blow up the heavy canisters in which radioactive spent fuel from nuclear reactors is transported through populated areas. It is even possible that they could acquire fissile material from one of the poorly guarded nuclear facilities around the world and find scientists willing to make nuclear weapons.

Current international agreements do not require that nuclear material and facilities in domestic use be guarded against thieves or saboteurs, including terrorists. This is a dangerous gap in the global barrier against proliferation. The IAEA has taken the first steps toward requiring measures to physically protect nuclear materials, but it is essential that this effort be pursued expeditiously and that countries take all reasonable steps to ensure that nuclear material is not part of the next terrorist attack.

Safeguards Do Not Protect

The 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires non-nuclear-weapon states to accept safeguards administered by the IAEA on all their nuclear activities. But, when the NPT was drafted, nuclear terrorism was not perceived as a significant threat, and the safeguards consist of monitoring and accounting measures designed to prevent non-nuclear-weapon states from diverting nuclear material from peaceful nuclear activities to weapons programs. The safeguards are not intended to prevent theft of nuclear material by outsiders or the bombing of reactors and spent fuel by terrorists.

Today there are threats not foreseen in 1968 that are unlikely to be deterred by NPT requirements: terrorists who want to blow up nuclear reactors with high explosives to kill civilians and create chaos, thieves who want to steal weapons-usable nuclear material to sell to states or terrorists seeking nuclear weapons, and disgruntled employees who want to steal material and sell it on the black market.1

The threat that a terrorist might try to blow up a U.S. nuclear facility is frighteningly plausible. Even before the September 11 attacks, conventional high-explosive bombs delivered by car, truck, or boat had been used in numerous terrorist attacks on U. …

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