Fukushima meltdown could be template for nuclear terrorism, study says

The Fukushima meltdown showed how some nuclear plants are vulnerable to cooling-system failures. That might be of interest to Al Qaeda, which considered attacking US nuclear facilities after 9/11, a new study says.

Tokyo Electric Power Co./AP/File
This file photo taken on March 16 shows the damage caused to the No. 4 unit of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant by an explosion caused by the failure of plant cooling systems.

The Fukushima disaster's dramatic demonstration of how nuclear plants are vulnerable to cooling-system failure could "awaken terrorist interest" in attacking such plants, says a new joint study by US and Russian experts on the threat of nuclear terrorism.

After 9/11, Al Qaeda operatives were reported to have to have conducted light reconnaissance of US nuclear reactor facilities. But beefed up defenses apparently led the terror group's leadership to conclude "it would be too difficult either to crash a plane into a nuclear facility or to sabotage a plant," says the report released Monday by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

Now, however, Fukushima's multiple meltdowns could alter that line of thinking, says the "US-Russia Joint Threat Assessment on Nuclear Terrorism," whose authors include former CIA officials, Russian nuclear specialists, and nuclear proliferation experts.

"One important lesson of the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents is that what can happen as a result of an accident can also happen as a result of a premeditated action," the report says. "Indeed, today’s high levels of nuclear safety are dependent on the high reliability of components such as cooling systems; if these are intentionally destroyed, the probability of a large release would increase greatly."

While most of the report focuses on continued trafficking in nuclear material and the need to lock down vulnerable nuclear sites, it also confirms what nuclear-power watchdog groups in the US have been saying for months – that Fukushima demonstrated an acute vulnerability that could be exploited at US reactor sites.

"Terrorists will most likely try to damage a reactor’s support and water-supply systems as well as its control and protection system to cause a heat explosion of the reactor with subsequent demolition of the reactor and the building in which it is located," the Harvard study notes.

Pools of circulating water that cool spent fuel could be an attractive a target, the report adds. At the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the spent-fuel pool belonging to its No. 4 reactor lost power to its cooling system, resulting in the water boiling off and a spent-fuel fire that released radiation directly into the atmosphere.

At least 28 reactors in the US have designs similar to the Fukushima plant, where spent-fuel pools are suspended near the ceiling of the reactor building. Such pools, when loaded with spent fuel, are safe as long as their cooling systems are working.

But US spent-fuel pools tend to be far more heavily loaded than those in Japan. Today, some 65,000 metric tons of spent fuel is stored at reactor sites around the country, 75 percent of it in US spent-fuel pools, according to data from the Nuclear Energy Institute cited in a recent report by the non-partisan Institute for Policy Studies.

Some 30 million such rods are stored in spent-fuel pools at 51 sites around the country that "contain some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet," that study said.

The rods are usually kept in tightly packed racks submerged in pool water, which requires a steady flow of electricity to keep water circulating and the rods from overheating. If water drains from a spent-fuel pool, it can lead to a catastrophic fire that emits dangerous radioactive elements like Cesium 137.

Even so, the US does not mandate backup power for cooling systems to the pools, nuclear power watchdogs have noted in several recent studies.

The National Academy of Sciences in 2004 cited the pools as vulnerable to terrorist attack and fires. While the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has said the pools are safe, the Fukushima reactors' core meltdowns and spent-fuel pool fire prompted a new study of the possible impact of an earthquake or electrical blackout on US sites.

Now comes the Harvard study bolstering the terrorist threat to spent fuel.

"Even if terrorists fail to cause a wide-scale dispersal of radioactive material," the report says, "their sabotage efforts may still provoke widespread terror, shut down a reactor, and cause significant economic and socio-political damage.”

[Editor's note: The original version incorrectly attributed a piece of information found in a report by the Institute for Policy Studies to a report by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs]

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