Terrorist attacks in United States prompt alert at nuclear facilities

28 September 2001

Nuclear facilities worldwide are on a state of alert in the wake of the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City and severely damaged the Pentagon on 11 September. It is likely that the attacks will upset plans for a revival of the nuclear power industry.

US energy secretary Spencer Abraham warned the IAEA conference last month that terrorists could target nuclear plants or attempt to steal materials to make bombs. He said they will use any method and that “the terrible events demonstrate in the clearest possible fashion the importance of maintaining the highest levels of security over nuclear materials.” Mr Abraham brought a message from President Bush urging the agency to keep pace with “the real and growing threat of nuclear proliferation.” There have been several reports that Saudi exile Osama bin Laden, the man believed to be behind the attacks, has attempted to acquire uranium-235. At the trial of four men accused of participating in the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa, Jamal Ahmed al Fadl, a defector from bin Laden’s network said that in 1993 he had acted as a go-between in an attempt to acquire a cylinder containing highly enriched uranium. Al Fadl claimed he had been ordered to buy the uranium from a former Sudanese military officer for $1.5 million but, before the deal went through, he was removed from the negotiations.

A former Russian intelligence official said Russian security forces halted an attempt in 1998 to sell an unspecified amount of Soviet-origin, bomb-grade uranium to a Pakistani company controlled by bin Laden.

Following the attack, all US nuclear power plants, non-power reactors, nuclear fuel facilities, and gaseous diffusion plants heeded the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s advice to go to the highest level of security as a precautionary measure. At the same time, the Department of Energy was placing atomic weapons laboratories on the same degree of vigilance. On the day of the attacks most of the Savannah River Site employees were sent home just before 1:00pm.

NRC spokesman William Beecher commented: “While there was no credible general or specific threats to any of these facilities, the recommendation was considered prudent.” The heightened security measures included, among other things, increasing patrols to the perimeter areas of the plants, inspecting all barriers, and increasing the number of security personnel. Beecher said containments at US nuclear plants are designed to withstand a direct hit from an airliner.

Nuclear critics predicted Congress would take a closer look at the safety of nuclear waste transportation by roads and rails.

The heightened security measures are likely to remain for some time and could have permanent effects. The cost of the additional security measures remains unclear, but federal regulators have indicated they are ready to approve requests for electricity rate increases, should they be requested.

American Nuclear Insurers said the terrorist attacks help make a case for renewal of the federal Price-Anderson nuclear insurance law, which is due to expire in less than 11 months. If a nuclear plant had been the target of the terrorists, rather than the World Trade Center or the Pentagon, up to $9.5 billion in financial support would have been immediately available, a spokesman said. There would be no need for injured parties to wait for courts to decide who was negligent. Under Price-Anderson, the money would come from a fee all US nuclear facilities pay, plus post-event assessments on nuclear operators if the damage were severe. Congress would decide how to provide financial support beyond the liability limit, if necessary.

Nuclear plants are designed to withstand the impact of an aircraft crash. But the IAEA admitted that plants were only designed for accidental impacts from the smaller aircraft widely used during the 1960s and 1970s, when most nuclear plants were built.

Around the world, nuclear plant operators have been questioned about security at their plant and, in particular, whether the plant can withstand the impact of a jetliner.

The Rosenergoatom press centre said: “There are no security threats at the atomic energy facilities.” Russian nuclear plant security systems “are one of the most reliable in the world and constantly operate in a state of full readiness.” Japan’s economy, trade and industry minister, Takeo Hiranuma, said Japan needs to tighten security at its reactors to defend against possible terrorist attacks. “Nuclear reactors have been designed to be perfectly safe against horizontal shock of earthquakes, but they are not prepared for a vertical descent by a missile or aircraft,” he said.

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