out of the plant would be time consuming and obvious to the plant defenders and other responding forces.
There are broken fuel rods and other debris, mostly from older assemblies, in storage at many plants. These materials are typically stored along the sides of the spent fuel pools and could be more easily removed from the plant than an entire assembly. Pieces of fuel rods also are sometimes intentionally removed from assemblies for offsite laboratory analysis. Some plants have misplaced fuel rod pieces.12 A knowledgeable insider might be able to retrieve some of this material from the pool, but getting it out of the plant under normal operating conditions would be difficult.
Even the successful theft of a part of a spent fuel rod would provide a terrorist with only a relatively small amount of radioactive material. Superior materials could be obtained from other facilities. This material also can be purchased (Zimmerman and Loeb, 2004).
Moreover, even with explosive dissemination, it is unlikely that much of the spent fuel will be aerosolized unless it is incorporated into a well-designed RDD. More likely, such an event would break up and scatter the fuel pellets in relatively large chunks, which would not pose an overwhelming cleanup challenge.
Even though the likelihood of spent fuel theft appears to be small, it is nevertheless important that the protection of these materials be maintained and improved as vulnerabilities are identified.
2.3 RISKS OF TERRORIST ATTACKS ON SPENT FUEL STORAGE FACILITIES
Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff told the committee that it believes that the consequences of a terrorist attack on a spent fuel pool would likely unfold slowly enough that there would be time to take mitigative actions to prevent a large release of radioactivity. They also pointed out that since the September 11, 2001, attacks, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued several orders that contain Interim Compensatory Measures that require power plant operators to consider potential mitigative actions in the event of such an attack. The committee received a briefing on some of these measures at one of its meetings. According to Commission staff, such measures provide an additional margin of safety.
The nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have also asserted that the robust construction and stringent security requirements at nuclear power plants13 make them less vulnerable to terrorist attack than softer targets such as chemical plants and refineries (e.g., Chapin et al., 2002). They argue that scarce resources should be devoted to
upgrading security at these other critical facilities rather than at already well-protected nuclear plants.
There are two unstated propositions in the argument that nuclear plants are less vulnerable than other facilities. The first speaks to the probability of terrorist attacks on such facilities; the second speaks to the consequences:
Proposition 1: Nuclear power plants (and their spent fuel facilities) are less desirable as terrorist targets because they are robust and well protected,
Proposition 2: If attacked, nuclear plants (and their spent fuel storage facilities) are likely to sustain little or no damage because they are robust and well protected.
The committee obtained a briefing from the Department of Homeland Security to address the first proposition. Details are provided in the classified report.
While the committee’s classified report was in review, the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States issued a staff paper (Staff Statement No. 16, Outline of the 9/11 Plot, pages 12–13) suggesting that al-Qaida initially included unidentified nuclear plants among an expanded list of targets for the September 11, 2001, attacks. According to that report, these plants were eliminated from the target list along with several other facilities when the terrorist organization scaled back the number of planned attacks. Nevertheless, if this information is correct, it provides further indications that commercial nuclear power plants are of interest to terrorist groups,14 even though softer targets may have a higher priority with many terrorists.
With respect to the first proposition, the committee judges that it is not prudent to dismiss nuclear plants, including their spent fuel storage facilities, as undesirable targets for attacks by terrorists.
As to the second proposition that terrorist attacks are likely to cause little or no damage, a poorly designed attack or an attack by unsophisticated terrorists might produce little physical damage to the plant There could, however, be severe adverse psychological effects from such an attack that could have considerable economic consequences. On the other hand, attacks by knowledgeable terrorists with access to advanced weapons might cause considerable physical damage to a spent fuel storage facility, especially in a suicide attack.
It is important to recognize that an attack that damages a power plant or its spent fuel facilities would not necessarily result in the release of any radioactivity to the environment. While It may not be possible to deter such an attack, there are many potential mitigation steps that can be taken to lower its potential consequences should an attack occur. These are discussed in some detail in the committee’s classified report (see also Chapters 3 and 4 in this report).