« 1 2 3View All»

“The overall objective of HOSS should be that the amount of releases projected in even severe attacks should be low enough that the storage system would be unattractive as a terrorist target,” the so-called ‘HOSS Principles’ say. “Design criteria that would correspond to the overall objective must include: [R]esistance to severe attacks, such as a direct hit by high-explosive or deeply penetrating weapons and munitions or a direct hit by a large aircraft loaded with fuel or a small aircraft loaded with fuel and/or explosives, without major releases. Placement of individual canisters that makes detection difficult from outside the site boundary.”

SONGS fails on all counts. Its two SFPs are the large rectangular buildings attached to the 6-foot thick domes of the reactors. They are easily within the line of sight for the 11,500 southbound cars that pass the plant each peak hour according to the 2012 Traffic Volumes on California State Highways compiled by the state Department of Transportation.

U.S. Border Patrol bannerNone of these vehicles are stopped and checked for weapons, obviously. The traffic in the northbound lanes is impeded a mile south of San Onofre by the California Border Patrol San Onofre Inspection Station usually and has even higher volume than southbound traffic.

A 53-foot long trailer stopped at the station August 29 was found to have more than nine tons of marijuana worth $14 million. Somehow the huge load had made it over the border but was stopped just shy of San Onofre illustrating just how porous the border is that the truck got into the United States in the first place.

“This seizure by our agents helps weaken the transnational criminal organizations who attempt to use our roadways to conduct their illegal activities,” San Diego Sector Chief Patrol Agent Paul Beeson said, confirming the transnational aspect of the cartels’ reach. That does not bode well for San Onofre but it is no surprise either.

A vehicle pulled over to the shoulder in the southbound lanes of the San Diego Freeway across the railroad tracks and Old Highway 101 will find itself just about 560 feet from one of the spent fuel pool buildings. Exit El Camino Real and pull up on Old Highway 101 next to the plant wall and the distance shrinks to about 360 feet.

A half mile of the freeway in southbound lanes means a long shoulder where motorists sometimes break down and speeders are pulled over by the California Highway Patrol. This area also has an unobstructed view of the SFPs buildings. This makes them vulnerable to a hit and run or sustained terrorist rocket attack from the shoulder of the road.

Removing sightlines is imperative in situations where the targets are essentially unprotected save for the SFPs buildings’ integrity. There are no view-blocking fences along Interstate 5 in this stretch. That could be quickly remedied by installing Caltrans fencing with green fabric between the southbound lanes’ shoulder and the railroad tracks running for about half a mile adjacent San Onofre. The only thing drivers would miss would be the impressive site of SONGS on the Pacific. That is precisely the goal.

The SONGS perimeter wall along Old Highway 101 is even more perilous. It is not tall enough to block someone from standing in the bed of a pickup and firing a rocket propelled missile into one or both SFPs. The public road leads to a public beach south of the plant and is not controlled nor is it covered in cameras. Again, an effective and quick way to mitigate this threat is through additional chain link with privacy slats fencing along the perimeter wall adding at least four feet to inhibit sightlines

Rocket Launcher Risk

A successful strike on SONGS’ spent fuel pools could devastate Southern California, the ultimate price paid for buying the utopian dream of limitless “clean” nuclear energy. That dream will turn a nightmare should these vulnerable SFPs get successfully attacked with substantial force. In the case of SONGS, that would be two attackers at a minimum with a rocket launcher with a HESH missile, one to fire the simple to use weapon and one as the lookout and driver.

SONGS July 2012 - photo by William Preston BowlingFairly inexpensive rocket launchers could easily blow the smithereens out of the flat-sided SFPs buildings at SONGS depending on the armaments. The most common rocket launcher in the U.S. is the AT4 which is an 84-mm portable and unguided missile firing weapon made in Sweden. The AT-4 is 40 inches long and weighs just 15 pounds but with an Anti-Structure Tandem (AST) warhead, the weapon would be San Onofre’s worst nightmare.

The AT-4 is simple to use and requires little training. Its maximum effective range is 328 yards which is more than enough distance for any attack from the San Diego Freeway or Old Highway 101.

Warheads specifically designed to destroy fortified bunkers are made for the AT-4. The AST warhead has two settings, one for obliterating concrete and iron reinforced bunkers as well as “mouse holing” through a building to allow soldiers to storm through in urban combat.

The spent fuel pools buildings were not designed to resist attacks from weapons such as rocket launchers. No study has been performed to see how the SFPs buildings would stand up to such an attack so is not certain what a rocket’s destructive potentially could be. Judging from the videos of such a weapon available online, the structures would do well to not become the first test cases.

Marines at Camp Pendleton have trained extensively with AT-4 rocket launchers as an August 2009 YouTube video shows. The soldiers were using what appeared to be a high explosive anti-tank (HEAT) round. If the rocket launcher was equipped with an AST, it would be far more destructive to edifices like the ones that house San Onofre’s SFPs.

“The AT4 CS AST is optimized for defeating urban targets such as reinforced concrete walls, earth and timber bunkers, light armoured vehicles,” says SAAB, its Swedish manufacturer. “It can be fired from concealed spaces and its tandem grenade provides the dismounted soldier with a unique amount of firepower.”

This weapon can be fired from inside a vehicle outside of SONGS making a getaway all that much more plausible as well as making the menace that much more perilous. The bunker-busting missile is of a type called a high-explosive squash head (HESH) though referred to in the U.S. as a High Explosive, Plastic (HEP) round. The low-velocity projectile smooches plastic explosive against the a structure, as it does 45 seconds into the demonstration video on the SAAB site, and spreads out to form a disk of explosive on the structure. Milliseconds later, the base fuse detonates sending a shockwave into the edifice and sending a shock wave through the metal beyond the wall.

Of course such a weapon could also be used from a boat outside of SONGS if the conditions were right. The fact that the land-based approaches to attacking San Onofre are so open and unguarded, and the fact that the spent fuel pools buildings are somewhat hidden by the reactor domes from the sea, makes this an unlikely but not impossible terrorist attack scenario.

The National Academy of Sciences put to rest any doubts that SFPs were susceptible to a terrorist strike in a 2004 report:

Black Swan“A loss‐of‐pool‐coolant event resulting from damage or collapse of the pool could have severe consequences,” the NAS report stated. “It is not prudent to dismiss nuclear plants, including spent fuel storage facilities as undesirable targets for terrorists…under some conditions, a terrorist attack that partially or completely drained a spent fuel pool could lead to a propagating zirconium cladding fire and release large quantities of radioactive materials to the environment…Such fires would create thermal plumes that could potentially transport radioactive aerosols hundreds of miles downwind under appropriate atmospheric conditions.”

A 2005 Congressional Research Service study then looked at the risks of terrorism causing such a SFP breach and found that a “primary concern is whether terrorists could breach the thick concrete walls of a spent-fuel pool and drain the cooling water.”

Three years later, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission released a workbook looking at SONGS in a major earthquake for a Radiological Assessment System for Consequence Analysis (RASCAL 3.0.5). The September 2007 NRC study was developed for its Emergency Operation Center. The remarkably candid report postulated this terrifying scenario:

“The plant staff is calling you from San Onofre, Unit 2 because there has been an earthquake in the vicinity. The spent fuel pool has lost much of its water due to a large crack possibly flowing into a sink hole. Due to a malfunctioning pump, it has not been possible to provide enough water to make up for the loss. The water dropped to the top of the fuel at 8:49 A.M., and appears likely to continue dropping. Estimates are that the fuel will be fully uncovered by 11:00 A.M. The pool has high density racking and contains one batch of fuel that was unloaded from the reactor only 2 weeks earlier. (A batch is defined as one‐third of a core) Another batch was unloaded about a year before that, and 8 batches have been in the pool for longer than 2 years. The spent fuel building has been severely damaged and is in many places directly open to the atmosphere.”

This NRC theoretical scenario, were it to come true, according to Robert Alvarez’s SONGS spent fuel report for Friends of the Earth, would be catastrophic. “[W]ithin 6 hours of the pool drainage the spent fuel cladding would catch fire releasing approximately 86 million curies into the atmosphere,” Alvarez’s FOE report said. “Of that about 30 percent of the radio‐cesium in the spent fuel (roughly 40 million curies) would be released – more than released by all atmospheric nuclear weapons tests. The resulting doses to people within 1, 5 and 10 miles of the release are calculated at 5,200, 1,200 to 450 rems respectively. These are considered to be life‐threatening doses. Thyroid doses from inhalation of radioiodine are calculated at 39,000, 1,200 and 450 rems respectively. Doses from exposure to radioactive iodine would be enough to cause this organ to be destroyed.”

These astonishing numbers don’t take into account several factors that make such a disaster at San Onofre particularly treacherous. The NRC and Friends of the Earth estimates are based on one spent fuel pool losing all its water with the corresponding consequences. SONGS has two SFPs in two buildings as Southern California Edison shows in its SONGS virtual tour video.

Both SFPs buildings could be attacked from the same spot terrorists could pick from along long stretches of unguarded roads. If both buildings were destroyed by these weapons available on both sides of the border, the result would clearly be twice the permanent destruction of huge swaths of Southern California, including our biggest Marine base, and lethal radioactive doses to hundreds of thousands of defenseless Americans.


Black Swan SONGS banner

« 1 2 3View All»


  1. This is a very important article with excellent analyisis of the security and safety situation at San Onofre nuclear plant and the nuclear industry in general.

    Great work using open intelligence sources to point out the corruption at SCE/Nuclear Industry, that is putting the lives of everyone at risk simply for the satisfaction of greed and profits.

    This in depth article deserves to be broadly disseminated, thank you for the work you have put into this informative piece.

  2. Terrorists, psychos, wars and disgruntled crazy [furloughed] employees, not to mention mother nature, are extremely unpredictable.

    Nuclear Power cannot, should not, operate with ‘unpredictable’ risks that carry with them the incalculable insidious destructive power to harm innocent life on such an unimaginable massive long term scale.

    Seriously, I don’t understand why don’t people get this?

  3. In reading this article, some things become very clear. There are many reasons to shore up security at particularly vulnerable nuclear sites. For a private company, such as SCE, security is not their top priority. A private company’s top priority is, not surprisingly, profit. Security is a cost, and costs subtract from profit. The NRC understands this, and makes security scenarios that will not cost nuclear plant operators too much money. The article also references Osama Bin Laden and his thinking on nuclear targets. I was unaware that Osama Bin Laden recommended against such targets (at that time). That is very interesting. Now that the US has removed Osama Bin Laden from the equation, the US may have removed one of the individuals who provided an argument against thinking of nuclear sites as targets. Feeling more uneasy now? You should. Michael Collins has painted a worrisome picture of the future. Specific vulnerabilities, methods of attack, and weapons that could be used, are all very frightening. I suspect the terrorists don’t really need any help thinking up ways to attack a nuclear site. The real danger lies more fundamentally within the mindset of the terrorists. Do they understand such an attack could “get out of hand”, producing consequences that could spiral out of control? Consequences that would not be in the terrorists best interests? From reading this article, I think Osama understood that. But Osama is no longer there to prevent the unthinkable. That “mindset” gateway to nuclear terrorism may now be open. That is what should worry us most. Thank you Michael for your article. Very thought provoking. Very scary actually. I won’t be sleeping as well tonight. America shouldn’t either.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *