Nuclear Threats

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

8 thoughts on “Nuclear Threats”

  1. Concern for the physical security of nuclear faciliies shows that the current private
    security people are not up to the task. Of Course not! Both training and constant weapon updates, security procedures, etc. will always struggle for proper funding.
    Why don’t we just bite the bullet and commission the U.S. Marines to do this task.??
    They would be rotated in and out like other assignments, such as embassy and presidential protection, etc. Their training would always be up to date as would their weapons and tactics.

  2. Viv, if you trafficking in large volumes of ammonia is inherently safe you are greatly mistaken, whole books have been written on the subject, and there are regular conferences on the matter because production plants do explode, or have major releases.

    Also let me disabuse you of the idea that any energy conversion/storage technology does not have significant losses – the laws of thermodynamics in fact guarantee it.

    Lastly, I suggest that you calculate the size of the facilities that you would require to produce enough power to satisfy demand 24/7 year after year, and I think you will find that it would be a staggering amount of land that would have to be covered by these plants. Although we tend to see places like the Australian Outback as waste land, the fact is that they are ecosystems in their own right and they will be utterly destroyed by projects of the size and number required to eliminate Australia’s use of carbon-based fuels.

  3. In citing the risks associated with nuclear power I thought I should also cite the alternatives which are safe. It is not a question of whether there is a breakthrough in technology that will displace fossil fuel and nuclear as major sources. It is because of a lack of awareness that renewables can do it and in fact we are at the crossroads of that happening now.

    There has been a breakthrough in renewable energy base power production! I refer to solar thermal power using a cheap flat mirror system and storage by the disassociation of ammonia in an endothermic reactor then stored at ambient temperature and used at any later time even during wintertime the sun’s energy is not lost being chemically locked up. Then reapplied to an exothermic reactor heat is produced at about 500 degrees to provide steam for power generation. This closed loop system enables 24/7 base power production for industry and it also is able to provide medium or peak power on demand. Not only that the storage system is easy to do and cheap and is based on mature technology and enables the sun’s energy to be stored any length of time without loss so that the energy can be extracted in the wintertime if necessary or any time in the future! No other storage system can do this and it is a real breakthrough.

    A gigawatt plant is right now being built in America financed by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla who says that solar thermal power is poised for explosive growth because of it’s low costs together with Australian scientist Dr David Mills who had to leave Australia because of our government’s unfavorable policies. We could have had this happening in Australia if our government had been receptive. There is certainly no need to have nuclear power here! And in Europe a TRANS-CSP report commissioned by the German government calculates that solar thermal power is likely to become one of the cheapest sources of power including the cost of transmission. Not producing any carbon and it does not have safety issues it’s easy to see why. This is the power that needs to be, and can be sent to third world counties and the rest of Europe via High Voltage Direct Current Transmission lines from solar thermal plants in North African deserts or the Middle East with only 3% loss in transmission.

    In fact the whole world could use this as a major power source as there are many deserts around. The potential for it to power the world cleanly and safely and reduce greenhouse gasses at the same time is a real bonus. And it is being done now. Lets get on with it and continue! A general understanding and awareness of solar thermal power (CSP) can be seen on http://www.trec-uk.org.uk/index.htm and (http://www.trecers.net/index.html and http://www.trec.net.au/ and understanding of the storage system in schematic form can be seen at http://engnet.anu.edu.au/DEresearch/solarthermal/high_temp/thermochem/index.php

  4. “For instance, terrorists or saboteurs might instigate illegal mining of an officially closed uranium mine”

    I missed that one the first time through. They’re joking, they must be joking do these idiots have any idea just how much ore would have to be mined to make a device? Do they think that a bunch of terrorists or saboteurs could refine that much ore and process out the weapons-grade uranium at the required purity to make a weapon?

    This is really the most farfetched nonsense ‘threat’ I have seen to date. A great demonstration of the intellectual dishonesty, and contempt of fact that is the hallmark of the antinuclear movement.

  5. Though I have not read the report details, I can offer a few thoughts as a worker in the US nuclear industry. I see some of my points echo those of the first response to this article. (Also, my apologies for being rather lengthy.)

    Single nuclear units and even multiple unit sites periodically go offline unexpectedly in the US, but due to the regional nature of our electric grids and the excess margin they maintain this does not result in widespread power outages. The great East Coast blackout of a few years ago was in part the result of multiple nuclear and fossil units shutting down unexpectedly in a short time period.

    Otherwise the points raised by the various articles strike me as valid on the surface – – but they must be put in context. I know nothing of nuclear mining and enrichment and can’t comment. Regarding damage to plants and spent fuel dispersal, we must be careful to separate out public fears about radiation from medical fact about the effects of radiation. The outcry over the recent Japanese earthquake nuclear plant mess has shown again that the general reaction of the public to radiation is to treat it like nerve gas, where any amount can do catastrophic damage. This is not correct – it takes a very sizeable amount of radiation to cause long-term or widespread damage to an individual or area. (And yes, Chernobyl managed this.)

    I would be curious if, when speaking of widespread radioactive contamination causing serious environmental damage effecting the population (beyond psychologically, I presume), the authors are considering the amount of radioactive material release. If they are speaking of some sort of release of spent fuel products (presumably from onsite storage) they may have this covered to some extent, but other assumptions must be made regarding the dispersal, and each of these has odds associated with it, even if some of them are the result of deliberate human actions.

    Finally, there’s the broader perspective to be considered. Here in America , about once a week we evacuate a neighborhood when train cars carrying toxic chemicals derail. We have a number of very toxic “superfund” sites requiring extensive cleanup, and many more of our landfills contain stuff we wouldn’t want to be around. Natural gas explosions kill people every year. Some environmentalists claim widespread heath effects from fossil-fuel burning, even without considering global warming. People die every year during summer heat waves due to lack of air-conditioning. How does the risk versus reward stack up for nuclear power versus other power sources (or large scale conservation) and other risks we accept? For power sources, is better to accept a known quanty of X number of deaths per year from non-nuclear sources, or reduce this by using nuclear with the understanding there is some (probably low, in my view) chance of X++ deaths due to an accident or sabotage, etc. As I mentioned in my comment on the previous article, I believe public is nowhere near making good judgments in this area based on their current level of understanding.

    James Aach

    Author of “Rad Decision”, the thriller nuclear power novel.
    See Rad Decision.blogspot.com

  6. Why do these concerns always dwell on nuclear facilities? Just how small a lump of C-3 would light up an LNG terminal, and how large an area would be taken out with the blast. How about a chemical fertilizer storage area, or an oil refinery? What’s the security like around big hydroelectric dams, and what guarantees are being given that a ‘terrorist’ with a boat-bomb won’t breach one upstream from a populated area?

    Death-over-death the chemical sector’s disasters have dwarfed those of nuclear, yet I see no hand-wringing calls for the elimination of that sector or demands that it must meet a higher standard of safety than other industries.

    This is typical of the fear mongering that has typified the nuclear debate from the beginning. Get a grip people, a great deal of the technology that we depend on is potentially dangerous if someone is sloppy or wants to do harm and we live with it every day. Nuclear is no different, and in many ways it is less dangerous than some other forms of energy production.

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