Lately, the nuclear power industry had been hoping for something of a renaissance. After years of project cancellations and courting negative publicity, heightened concern about greenhouse gas emissions from conventional power stations, had given the industry the opportunity to argue that it was the more environmentally friendly energy source.
Then, along came the terrible events of September 11th.
The hijacked airliner attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon have radically altered the public perception of what is acceptable risk. As such, the whole of the nuclear electricity generating cycle is under renewed scrutiny. What if an airliner had been deliberately flown into a nuclear facility?
Unfortunately, a slew of facts have emerged since September 11th, all of which suggest that such a previously unthinkable act was high on the terror network’s agenda. There is a suspicion that the intended target of the fourth passenger plane hijacked on September 11th may have been one of three nuclear reactors in southern Pennsylvania. The FBI has cited a ‘credible source’ who stated that the hijackers had planned to hit a nuclear plant, and had kept Three Mile Island, part-owned by British Energy, under long-term surveillance.
These concerns have been seized upon by the environmental lobby, but were also echoed in a stark warning last month from Muhammad el-Baradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, speaking in Vienna at a symposium on international safeguards. More than 500 international experts on nuclear non-proliferation, security, and safety had taken part in a week of sessions on major security issues, including a hastily arranged one on nuclear terrorism.
“We are not just dealing with the possibility of governments diverting nuclear materials into clandestine weapons programs,” Mr el-Baradei told delegates. “Now we have been alerted to the potential of terrorists targeting nuclear facilities or using radioactive sources to incite panic, contaminate property, and even cause injury or death among civilian populations. The willingness of terrorists to commit suicide to achieve their evil aims makes the nuclear terrorism threat far more likely than it was before September 11."
US authorities have acted swiftly to make the country’s nuclear facilities more secure by, among other things, introducing ten-mile radius ‘no fly’ zones, and scrubbing government websites of any nuclear-related information likely to be of use to potential terrorists.
All nuclear reactor casings are designed to withstand the impact of a light plane, but no one knows for sure what would happen if a large airliner, such as an Airbus 380 or Boeing 747, fully laden with fuel, were to hit. Leaving aside its ‘payload’ of between 200,000 and 300,000 litres of kerosene, the kinetic energy of such an airliner is hundreds of times greater than that of a light plane.
No detailed studies of the scenario are publicly available, but to cause a core melt-down and a catastrophic release into the atmosphere requires the breaching of a containment vessel some three feet thick reinforced with high carbon steel, and the simultaneous destruction of multiple redundant safety systems. Most aviation, terrorism and explosives experts agree that this would very difficult to achieve with a passenger jet.
Of greater concern is the potential threat to reprocessing plants such as those operated by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) at Sellafield in Cumbria and the Compagnie Générale des Matières Nucléaires (COGEMA) at Cap la Hague in Normandy. These facilities are not so sturdy. One IAEA delegate at last month’s symposium from the World Nuclear Association even advocated moving them underground or erecting strong open-air geodesic frameworks around them.
Although Sellafield and Cap la Hague store large amounts of Plutonium (around 125 tonnes of civil-grade), the biggest and most obvious risks are the buildings which store liquid high level waste (HLW), a by-product of reprocessing. Essentially a sludgy solution of fission products, such as Caesium-137 and Strontium-90, in nitric acid, the liquid HLW is stored in double-walled stainless steel tanks which have to be monitored, ventilated and cooled 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If they are not, explosive hydrogen gas builds up and within twelve hours or so, according to some studies, the liquid will boil, releasing volatile highly toxic radioactive particles.
In September 1957, the failure of a cooling pipe in an underground tank containing liquid HLW at the Mayak Chemical Combine, about 70 kilometres north of Chelyabinsk in the Southern Urals, caused an explosion which rendered an area the size of central London uninhabitable. For years the Russians kept the accident secret, but now it is clear that it was second only to Chernobyl in magnitude. At least 200 people died from radiation sickness.
Sellafield’s liquid HLW storage building was originally constructed in 1955 and now houses 21 tanks. For years, Britain’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has been pressing BNFL to incorporate its liquid HLW into glass blocks, which are safer because they can be air-cooled. To this end, in 1991, BNFL set up two waste vitrification lines, but because of technical problems (and an inexplicable act of sabotage last year) the throughput has only been a third of that expected. A third waste vitrification line has yet to come on stream.
Thus, the amount of liquid HLW stored on-site at Sellafield has steadily built up and is now thought to be more than 1550 cubic metres. At the end of September, BNFL had to temporarily suspend reprocessing to clear some of this backlog.
At Cap La Hague, most HLW is vitrified, but there are five liquid HLW tanks similar to Sellafield’s. Following the publication of an alarming report by Paris-based environmental group WISE based on research originally commissioned by the European Union’s Scientific and Technical Options Assessment panel, the French government has reviewed its security arrangements at Cap la Hague. It has set up a 10 kilometre air exclusion zone, installed surface-to-air missile batteries at the facility, and stationed a squadron of Mirages nearby.
WISE published an even more damning report on Sellafield, but the British government has been slower to respond. Security at Britain’s nuclear facilities is regulated by the Office of Civil Nuclear Security, which has under its control the 500-strong Atomic Energy Agency Police force. The British Ministry of Defence has to be ‘invited in’ before it can play an active role in security measures.
British Energy, which operates eight of Britain’s eight most modern nuclear power stations, had been lobbying the British government to introduce no-fly zones around its nuclear power plants for around eight years.
Spokesman Doug McRoberts told EarthConfidential: “We renewed our request a couple of years ago when an RAF tornado jet crashed into the sea about a mile from Torness power station. We asked again after the September 11th attacks. Then, some weeks later, a television crew over-flew Sizewell B and another over-flew Hinckley Point B. Would you believe it, we had our no-fly zones within 24 hours.”
To many, these two-mile exclusion zones are not enough. It would take a passenger jet just 15 seconds to breach them. At the end of October, it took two Tornado fighter jets, armed with radar-guided and heat-seeking missiles, a full ten minutes to get to Sellafield, which lies uncomfortably close to one of the main transatlantic air routes. Luckily it was a false alarm. Since then, MPs have called for the installation of anti-aircraft missile batteries around Sellafield and for the air and off-shore exclusion zones to be extended to 50 miles.
So far, this request has fallen on deaf ears, although the British Ministry of Defence is presently conducting a security review, and a spokeswoman suggested that an expansion of a Territorial Army role (part-time volunteers) was “just one of the options” being looked at.
The British government has been quicker to introduce a new anti-terrorism, crime and security bill, one section of which is devoted entirely to the civil nuclear industry. Among other things it strengthens the regulation of security of nuclear establishments and increases the powers and jurisdiction of the AEA police. The force, which has a budget of around £23 million, is currently some 30 officers below-strength, with overtime commonplace.
The bill also makes it a criminal offence (punishable by up to seven years imprisonment) to make ‘unauthorised disclosures that may prejudice the security of any nuclear site or nuclear material’ either by intention or through recklessness. That includes publishing details of (and security arrangements for) nuclear waste shipments by rail and at sea.
While the proposed legislation is unlikely to hinder a determined and well-resourced terrorist network, it will make it harder for the ‘Green’ lobby to obtain information and campaign effectively; there is no ‘public interest’ defence included in the Bill as it currently stands.
Ironically, the first passenger jet struck the World Trade Centre some fifteen minutes into a British Energy press conference, highlighting the company’s upbeat contribution to the British Government’s energy review. BE had pitched for an increased role for nuclear power to meet the projected shortfall in Britain’s energy needs.
Far from being disheartened, McRoberts, now believes the sea-change in public attitudes will work both ways. “Nuclear power plants are much more physically robust,” he points out, “and it is also an indigenous source of energy, which would save us from having to rely on imported gas supplies which are volatile – both politically and in terms of price.”
The UK Government seems likely to back his position. Its review of energy policy may conclude that more new nuclear power stations are required. Notwithstanding that, the nuclear industry as a whole faces a tough new challenge to persuade the public that its facilities are safe from terrorist attack.
The hidden cost of the added security needed to defend these facilities will inevitably be borne by the long-suffering tax-payer. This will only lead to further accusations that the claimed profitability of the nuclear industry is no more than an accounting trick of the light.