New Nuke Designs Need Security

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 @ 04:02 PM gHale

New reactor and plant designs need stepped up plans for security, according to a report from a group of nuclear scientists.

While most safety procedures and precautions at U.S. nuclear plants gear toward accidents, more attention needs to go to intentional attacks and sabotage, said the extensive report, “The Future of Nuclear Power in the United States,” released last week by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and Washington and Lee University.

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Harold Feiveson, senior research scientist and member of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs who wrote the 144-page report’s security analysis section, analyzed the design-basis-threat (DBT), which is an assessment of the plausible threats that nuclear plants confront and must defend against.

He said despite improvements in the DBT after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “questions remain whether the DBT is yet realistic enough to capture plausible threats by terrorist groups, and whether the DBT and associated reactor security operations have been adjusted to accommodate industry concerns with cost.”

“There will always be the possibility of a beyond-DBT attack on a reactor,” he said. He recommended the nuclear power industry pursue new reactor designs, reactor site locations, and operational procedures that would boost the inherent safety and security of the plants.

He said the terror threat to nuclear plants comes primarily in two types: The first is a commando-like ground-based attack possibly abetted by an insider, on some designated targets and nuclear compounds. The target could be critical equipment, which if disabled could lead to a core meltdown or dispersal of radioactivity from the spent fuel pool. The second type is an external attack that uses either brute force or electronic stealth. Attackers could use an aircraft crashed into a reactor complex, or a cyber attack, which could also come from an insider at a plant.

An attack doesn’t’ necessarily have to target the reactor itself, Feiveson said. Spent fuel pools, used to store used reactor fuel rods, generally do not get as much protection from the containment dome and are more vulnerable than the reactor to attacks from the ground or air.

He said the way in which an utility manages the pools could greatly affect the risks of large releases of radioactivity in the event of loss of cooling. He cited a 2003 study by independent scientists that showed with densely-packed spent fuel rods, a loss of water coolant could potentially lead to a propagating zirconium fire and a large radioactive release to the environment. Zirconium is the material commonly used in cladding the fuel rods.

Although the DBT has improved and force-on-force security exercises done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission every three years have stepped up security, Feiveson said questions remain about the DBT’s ability to halt a terror attack and whether nuclear reactor security operations have adequately adjusted to address industry concerns with costs.

“Whatever the DBT, there will always be the possibility of a beyond-DBT attack on a reactor,” he said. “This suggests the value of the nuclear industry seeking reactor designs and operational procedures that are more inherently safe than the current systems.”

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