U.S. Nuclear Plants Vulnerable to Attack: Report

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More than 100 nuclear facilities in the United States are still vulnerable to terrorist attacks, even after the catastrophic 9/11 attacks, according to a new report from the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.

Such attacks could take two forms, according to the report, including theft of bomb-grade material that could be used to make weapons, and attacks intended to cause a reactor meltdown, according to the research.

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“More than 10 years have come and gone since the events of September 2001, and America’s civilian nuclear facilities remain unprotected against a terrorist attack of that scale,” said Professor Alan J. Kuperman, Ph.D., coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project. “Instead, our civilian reactors prepare only against a much smaller-scale attack, known as the design basis threat, while the government fails to provide supplementary protection against a realistic 9/11-type attack.”

Design basis threat (DBT) is based on potential malicious activity that could lead to dire consequences, as well as identification of inside or outside adversaries, characteristics of the adversaries and design and evaluation of physical protection systems, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The new report reveals that nuclear facilities nationwide do not have uniform DBT, and the level at which reactors and research facilities are protected varies according to the materials, location or which government agency regulates them. The level of attack at which facilities are required to protect against is often much lower than a 9/11 style attack, Kuperman said.

The report also reveals that even after the 9/11 air attacks, nuclear facilities are not required to defend against airplane attacks, or even against high-power sniper rifles. Further, a number of coastal cities are potentially at risk because DBT does not require defense against seaborne attacks. Included are areas in California, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Texas.

In a recent press conference addressing specifics of the report, Kuperman said although DBT is currently inadequate to protect against some attacks, the alternatives to DBT would not necessarily be an improvement. Instead, he said, DBT needs to be strengthened and uniform for all nuclear reactors and research facilities, in order to protect against theft of materials and “sabotage that could cause a massive meltdown and release of radiation.”

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