Not Just a Hollywood Thing: How Vulnerable to Terrorist Attack Are Our Nuclear Reactors, Processing Plants and Storage Facilities? Ministers Don't like to Discuss It. Dan Plesch Reviews the Evidence

By Plesch, Dan | New Statesman (1996), September 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

Not Just a Hollywood Thing: How Vulnerable to Terrorist Attack Are Our Nuclear Reactors, Processing Plants and Storage Facilities? Ministers Don't like to Discuss It. Dan Plesch Reviews the Evidence


Plesch, Dan, New Statesman (1996)


Taken together, the words "nuclear" and "terrorism" should always be enough to keep us awake at night. A nuclear bomb in unauthorised hands may have been the basis of umpteen Hollywood action movies, but the fear has a sound basis in reality. And it is not just the bombs: reactors and other installations associated with civil nuclear power are also seen as weapons an enemy could use against us with devastating effect.

Somewhere in my files I have a marketing leaflet issued by a US manufacturer of missile targeting equipment not long after the Chernobyl disaster. It features a little drawing of the crossed lines of a gun sight and right in the middle, just at the point where they meet, there is a nuclear reactor dome. As Ion g ago as 1976, in fact, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution pointed out that if nuclear reactors had been around during the Second World War, they would inevitably have been bombed, leaving parts of Europe radioactive to this day and for the foreseeable future.

Since 11 September 2001, official British concern about possible attacks on nuclear power stations and waste storage facilities has increased sharply. That the threat is usually spoken of as coming from terrorists, however, has not encouraged a rational response. Terrorism is a word that seems to stop people thinking, freezing thought around the concept of implacable Dalek-like evil. Vile though terrorism is, calm thinking is essential if we are to make a realistic assessment. It may help to say simply that we are talking about attacks by small groups of people, or even individuals, rather than by organised armed forces.

Clearly, people who oppose nuclear power as being generally hazardous can make a good case that nuclear facilities of almost any kind may be attacked, with disastrous results. Waste buried in deep caverns or mineshafts might be beyond the reach of small groups or individuals, but radioactive materials are vulnerable during transport and storage.

Since September 2001, the nuclear terrorist threat about which the British government has showed most public concern has been the possibility that a "dirty bomb" might be set off in a city centre. A dirty bomb is a high-explosive device attached to a quantity of radioactive material; when it goes off, some of the material is scattered over surrounding buildings and streets and some is dispersed in the air. Alarming as this prospect may be, however, we should keep the dangers in perspective. Except under some very special circumstances, this type of weapon is most unlikely to kill very large numbers of people in either the short or long term. This is partly because radioactive material is heavy and falls to the ground quite quickly, and also because radiation effects on health tend to impact over many years. However, there is no doubt that the psychological and political impact of such a weapon would be huge. (This explains why, among professionals in the field, the term "weapons of mass effect" is used in preference to the rather misleading "weapons of mass destruction".)

By comparison with the dirty bomb threat, the government has done little or nothing to draw public attention to the danger of an attack on a nuclear installation such as a reactor or a waste storage site. No doubt this may be explained partly by the desire not to put ideas into the minds of the enemy and partly by a reluctance to scare people. But the official reticence has also encouraged the suspicion that, as has happened so many times in the past, the government wants to assist the nuclear industry with its public profile.

If this is so, the tactic has not worked very well--as we noticed, for example, when Margaret Beckett announced the opening of the Thorp nuclear reprocessing facility at the same time as a major speech by the Prime Minister on the dangers of terrorism; or when the French government decided to deploy surface to-air missiles around the big nuclear plant near Cap de la Hague in Normandy; or when al-Qaeda leaders declared that they had considered, but rejected the plan on humanitarian grounds, attacking US nuclear facilities. …

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Not Just a Hollywood Thing: How Vulnerable to Terrorist Attack Are Our Nuclear Reactors, Processing Plants and Storage Facilities? Ministers Don't like to Discuss It. Dan Plesch Reviews the Evidence
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