Earlier this week I highlighted the views of Jesse Ausubel, who argues that renewable energy sources will not be sufficient to fulfill global energy demand and that nuclear power is the only viable option for powering the world. See Renewable Myths and Nuclear Heresies. Almost left unsaid, in his argument, although alluded to, are the inherent security and safety issues that surround the maintenance of a widespread nuclear industry. This week, a trio of security serious vulnerabilities surrounding the use of nuclear power have been published.
The first threat is at the source of the raw material for nuclear power itself, the uranium mine, processing plant, and transport route. Here, physical protection and security are at a much lower level than at a nuclear installation in the developed world, according to Austrian scientists writing today in the International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology.
The second threat is from saboteurs with expertise in the industry and the security of nuclear installations. Researchers from the US Environmental Protection Agency suggest that such saboteurs on the inside could wreak havoc and cause a serious environmental and health threats with only small, shaped explosives or even no explosives at all.
Finally, at the waste end of the nuclear industry, a second US team point out that the significant quantities of spent radioactive fuel could also represent a security nightmare. The team from environmental health and safety consultants S. Cohen and Associates, in Montgomery Alabama, point out that there is no secure central repository for nuclear waste. Any one of the waste storage or processing plants could be vulnerable to a terrorist attack.
Friedrich Steinhäusler and Lyudmila Zaitseva of the Division of Physics and Biophysics, at the University of Salzburg, Austria, have investigated the potential security threats facing the industry at the initial mining and milling end of the nuclear process. They explain how there are several points at which someone intent on terrorism or other purposes might intercept highly radioactive material. For instance, terrorists or saboteurs might instigate illegal mining of an officially closed uranium mine or diversion uranium ore from a mine or mill, or more obviously demolition of facilities with the intention of causing environmental harm.
The Austrian team believes such threats are very real. Uranium mining has been carried out in almost twenty countries, although 90% of world production takes place in ten of these, with seven of these states having been associated with clandestine nuclear activities.
“The current control system is inadequate as it could allow rogue nations or terrorist groups to traffic uranium or enriched yellow cake in at least 24 countries on three continents,” say the researchers, “There is a critical need to counter the threats resulting from an uncontrolled acquisition of these radioactive materials in a coordinated manner.”
Anthony Honnellio of the Emergency Response Branch OSSR and Stan Rydell of the Pesticides Toxics and Radiation Unit, both divisions of the US Environmental Protection Agency in Boston, realised that have been many reports on nuclear security that focus on terrorist attack from outside. However, they explain that sabotage by individuals with a detailed knowledge of security procedures, plant layout and the functional nature of the critical components of a nuclear power plant, could exploit their knowledge to catastrophic effect.
They speculate on how small explosives might be brought into secure areas and reveal that despite post-9/11 security improvements, banned items nevertheless slip through the metal and explosive detection equipment at airports, so could just as readily be brought into a nuclear installation. But, their concern does not lie only with the impact an explosion at a carefully chosen site my cause. They suggest that damage to a critical component could disable a power station and lead to widespread power outages, with significant civil disruption to those dependent on the supply.
In their consideration of security at the waste end of the nuclear industry, Edwin Sensintaffar and Charles Phillips of S Cohen and Associates point out that a recent review of safety and security at commercial spent nuclear fuel plants suggested that such facilities are vulnerable to terrorist activity. A deliberate fire at such a facility could cause widespread radioactive contamination, which could affect the local and wider population as well as cause serious environmental damage.
Sensintaffar and Phillips describe a scenario based on such an event to demonstrate the potential impact resulting from the release and dispersion of spent fuel products. “The radioactive contamination that could be released into the environment from such an event could contaminate thousands of square kilometres, result in billions of dollars in economic impact and large numbers of both early and latent cancer deaths,” the researchers say.
The three papers are in International Journal of Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology
Vol. 1, No. 3, 2007, p 286 – “Uranium mining and milling: material security and
risk assessment” by Friedrich Steinhäusler and Lyudmila Zaitseva
Vol. 1, No. 3, 2007, p 312 – “Sabotage vulnerability of nuclear power plants” by Anthony L. Honnellio and Stan Rydell
Vol. 1, No. 3, 2007, p 278 – “Environmental impact resulting from a fire at a spent nuclear fuel storage facility” by Edwin L. Sensintaffar and Charles R. Phillips