It’s an interesting twist that the recent Sept. 11, 2011, anniversary marks two momentous events — 10 years since the multiple terrorist attacks in the United States that spawned a worldwide “war on terror”, and six months since the devastating combination of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant disaster in Japan. These apparently disparate events share some important implications.

Where was the fourth airliner on Sept. 11, 2001, headed? It crashed in a Pennsylvania field as passengers and crew fought the hijackers, but what was its target? The White House or Capitol Hill is generally thought most likely, though some scholars have concluded that when it crashed, flight UA93 was heading for the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

A recent report “The U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment on Nuclear Terrorism,” from Harvard University and the Russian Academy of Sciences, notes that al-Qaida and North Caucasus terrorist groups have consistently stated that they seek nuclear weapons, and have attempted to acquire them. The other nonstate terrorist group known to have systematically sought to obtain nuclear weapons is the Aum Shinrikyo cult group responsible for the release of sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995.

Both al-Qaida and North Caucasus terrorist groups have threatened sabotage of nuclear facilities and considered dirty bombs dispersing radioactivity.

A report in July this year by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on “Insider Threats to Utilities” states that violent extremists have obtained positions within nuclear facilities, and approaches have been made to utility staff about conducting both physical and cyber attacks.

The Fukushima disaster has demonstrated how loss of electric power to both nuclear reactors and spent fuel ponds can cause core meltdown, fires and explosions causing massive releases of radioactivity.

The disaster has brought into sharp focus the dangers of spent fuel pools — often containing many times more and longer-lived radioactivity than reactor cores, and more than would be released even by a huge megaton-size nuclear bomb.

However in most countries, including Japan, these pools are surrounded not by multi-engineered containment structures like reactors, but by a simple building. The spent fuels in Fukushima were doubly vulnerable, located in the same buildings just above the reactors, both therefore highly vulnerable to anything that might go wrong with the other.

Many such pools are overfilled, with spent fuel packed more densely than they were designed for.

At the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, it was inadequate design and backup systems that enabled the earthquake and tsunami to precipitate a nuclear disaster which was waiting to happen; but power and water for cooling reactors and spent fuel could also be disrupted intentionally, by terrorists or in a war.

In a pressurized water reactor, core meltdown could occur within less than 1 minute after loss of coolant; with other reactor types it might take a few minutes. Reactor fuel containing plutonium, as was first loaded into the Fukushima Daiichi No. 3 reactor in September 2010, increases the health hazard from long-lived radioactive contamination of any reactor mishap.

Other types of nuclear facilities might be targeted deliberately, such as spent nuclear fuel-reprocessing plants like the one at Rokkasho in Aomori, which also contain vast amounts of long-lived radioactivity and separated plutonium.

The U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment notes that “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.”

They explain that terrorists will be searching for the “weakest link”, observing that “the dramatic developments associated with the Fukushima disaster might awaken terrorist interest in this path to nuclear terrorism.”

Attacks on nuclear power plants have occurred previously. In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq’s nearly complete Osirak reactor; and in 2007 destroyed what appears to have been an undeclared Syrian reactor at Dair Alzour being built with North Korean assistance.

Other instances may be less well known. In March 1973, guards at a nearly completed nuclear power reactor in Lima, Argentina, were overpowered in an attack by 15 armed men. In December 1977, Basque terrorist detonated 4 bombs — that damaged the reactor vessel and steam generator and killed 2 workmen — at a nuclear power plant under construction in Arminza, Spain.

In March 1982, four antitank rockets fired at the Superphenix fast breeder reactor in Creys-Malville, France, damaged the containment vessel. In December 1982, ANC fighters detonated four bombs inside a nuclear power reactor under construction at Melkbosstrand, South Africa.

Also in South Africa, in November 2007, four armed men deactivated several layers of security and entered control rooms at the Pelindaba nuclear center. Even unarmed environmental groups have repeatedly and readily demonstrated the vulnerability of nuclear plants, for example in the U.K. and Australia, by entering them, sometimes scaling the reactor buildings.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the International Atomic Energy Agency, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other authorities confirmed that no nuclear power reactors in the world were built to withstand the impact of a large commercial airliner.

Terrorists might look to exploit the increased vulnerability of a nuclear facility beset by a natural disaster, with possible physical damage, weakened safety systems and overburdened and distracted staff.

Each of the world’s current 437 nuclear power reactors and the associated spent fuel ponds is not only a potential source of material which can be used to build a nuclear bomb, but also a very large, positioned, radioactive “dirty” bomb in waiting, with potential for radioactive fallout on a similar scale or greater than a nuclear weapon.

If we do not act decisively to make both these dangers things of the past, terrorism involving either nuclear detonation or disruption of a nuclear facility will be just a matter of time.

Tilman Ruff , Ph.D., is chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and teaches at the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne.

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