VIENNA – The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, whose 2011 triple-meltdown forced the relocation of 160,000 people, may provide a new blueprint for terrorists seeking to inflict mass disruption, security analysts said Monday at a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The U.N. atomic agency convened a weeklong meeting of 1,300 diplomats, scientists and security analysts in Vienna to examine ways to boost protection against nuclear terrorism. The meeting is the IAEA’s first ministerial conference.
“Fukushima sent a message to terrorists that if you manage to cause a nuclear power plant to melt down, that really causes major panic and disruption in a society,” Matthew Bunn, a Harvard University professor and former White House adviser, said at a briefing. “All you need to do is cut off the power for an extended period of time.”
Leaders across the globe have pledged to secure the world’s loose nuclear material by 2014 to reduce the likelihood of an atomic attack by terrorists. While national nuclear facilities primarily endeavor to track the vast quantities of unaccounted for uranium and plutonium, some focus has shifted to the threat posed by power plants.
Fukushima “has provided a number of findings and lessons that are also useful for preparations for an incident caused by human hand, such as a terrorist attack at a nuclear power station,” said Shunichi Suzuki, Japan’s envoy to the meeting.
Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency was scheduled to present steps it’s taken to boost security against terrorism Tuesday in Vienna. The IAEA conference is taking place behind closed doors.
“Fukushima is a nuclear security problem as much as it was a nuclear safety problem,” said Kenneth Luongo, who with the U.S. Department of Energy helped secure atomic material in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The IAEA has projected nuclear power is set to expand worldwide even after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami sparked the triple-meltdown and radiation leaks at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima No. 1 plant.
A nuclear-armed terrorist attack on the port in San Jose, California, would kill 60,000 people and cost as much as $1 trillion in damage and cleanup, according to a 2006 Rand Corp. study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Even a low-level radiological or dirty-bomb attack on Washington, while causing a limited number of deaths, would lead to damages of $100 billion, according to Igor Khripunov, the former Soviet arms-control envoy to the U.S., who’s now at the Athens, Georgia-based Center for International Trade and Security.
Because a terrorist needs only about 25 kg of highly enriched uranium or 8 kg of plutonium to improvise a bomb, the margin of error for material accounting is small. There are at least 2 million kg of stockpiled weapons-grade nuclear material left over from decommissioned bombs and atomic-fuel plants, according to the most recent estimates by the International Panel on Fissile Materials, a nonprofit Princeton, New Jersey, research institute that tracks nuclear material.
That’s enough to make at least 100,000 new nuclear weapons on top of the 20,000 bombs already in state stockpiles.