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Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism
Once a terrorist state or organization is able to procure a state-owned nuclear weapon or SNM, especially HEU, it will be able to fabricate an IND if it has the appropriate technical expertise. In addition to the potential for obtaining SNM from existing stocks in countries like Russia, the technologies for making SNM are ubiquitous, and past experiences, which are discussed in the classified annex, illustrate the difficulty of detecting well-concealed clandestine efforts to produce these materials. Therefore, the second challenge for the United States and its allies is to improve the gathering of indications-and-warnings intelligence on efforts by states or groups to obtain a nuclear capability so that resources can be focused on countering the most significant threats. The third challenge is to improve capabilities for detecting and interdicting stolen nuclear weapons and INDs once they are obtained by a terrorist group or state.
The consequences of terrorist use of a stolen weapon or IND are horrible to contemplate. A successful detonation of a stolen weapon or IND could produce massive casualties and cause substantial damage to the nation’s political and economic infrastructure. Although recovery would eventually occur, it would be both expensive and lengthy. While recovery plans should be put into place to deal with such attacks, the main focus of the nation’s efforts must be on prevention of attacks by whatever means possible.
Nuclear Reactors, Spent Nuclear Fuel, and Radiological Dispersion Devices
Nuclear power plants may present a tempting high-visibility target for terrorist attack, and the potential for a September 11-type surprise attack in the near term using U.S. assets such as airplanes appears to be high. Such attacks could potentially have severe consequences if the attack were large enough and, were such an attack successfully carried out, could do great harm to the nation’s near-term energy security and civilian nuclear power as a long-term energy option.
Complete denial of the means to attack NPPs from the air or ground using U.S. assets such as aircraft is probably not feasible. If important vulnerabilities are identified, however, design and operational fixes exist, some of which are easily identifiable, that could substantially harden the facilities. Some of these possible fixes are discussed in the classified annex.
The private ownership and operation of NPPs present some additional challenges. One involves cost, and another information sharing. Private companies may be hesitant to commit significant resources to reducing vulnerabilities unless they receive clear guidance and leadership from the USNRC. Further, operators may be unable to pass such costs on to consumers in a highly competitive electricity market. This has important ramifications for nuclear energy as a long-term contributor to the U.S. energy supply. Information sharing between government agencies and plant owners and operators on potential vulnerabilities and operational fixes is essential for improving security at the nation’s NPPs. Such infor-