Another way to significantly prevent would-be terrorists from planning attacks on nuclear reactor plants and independent spent fuel facilities is to blur their images out on such Internet programs as Google Maps and Google Earth. If people’s faces and car license plates are easy to automatically blur, it should be simple to remove imagery of these sensitive installations.
This is not a new idea. Nuclear watchdog Scott Portzline has long advocated restricting Internet photographic imagery like this. Portzline’s June 5, 2009 CNN interview makes the point quite handily even if the network actually used sensitive imagery of nuclear sites in the report.
Government flubs spent fuel threat
“But when it’s necessary, [we will] defend the United States against terrorist attack,” President Obama said during his United Nations speech September 24. “We will take direct action.”
It’s not going to be easy preventing terrorist attacks on America’s most vulnerable nuclear spent fuel pools targets. Taken on a case by case basis, using the same reverse engineering of a terrorist attack employed by EnviroReporter.com during this investigation, it is certainly possible. All it takes is willpower.
Nuclear threats, meanwhile, go on. This has been known for years in the time since 9/11.
“[S]uccessful terrorist attacks on spent fuel pools, though difficult, are possible,” said Dr. Kevin Crowley of the Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board June 7, 2005. Crowley was speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations First Roundtable on Nuclear Security Issues. “If an attack leads to a propagating zirconium cladding fire, it could result in the release of large amounts of radioactive material.”
Crowley’s SFP study was supported by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRC) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under the direction of Congress. “The National Academies appointed a committee of experts to serve as the responsible study body,” Crowley said. “The committee has expertise in structural mechanics, fuel behavior, metal combustion, security, health physics, and human factors.”
While the committee identified several scenarios of a terrorist attack on an SFP, those details were provided in a classified report. The public part of the study said that “the potential vulnerabilities of spent fuel pools to terrorist attacks are plant-design specific. That is, they depend on the location of the pool with respect to ground level, the location of walls and other structures that could protect the pool from line-of-sight attacks, and the nature of the surrounding terrain that might make certain types of attacks easier or more difficult to carry out.”
The committee recommended that the NRC undertake a study of just what a terrorist attack on a SFP would do. It didn’t, but a new Department of Defense-related study released August 15 attempts to addresses the issue and demonstrates how woefully underprepared the government is for such a black swan peril.
As part of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, supported with funds from the Office of the Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the University of Texas at Austin released Protecting U.S. Nuclear Facilities from Terrorist Attack: Re-assessing the Current “Design Basis Threat” Approach. The study by a research assistant at the University of Texas indicates the level of priority the issue has with DOD. Not much.
“[T]he report’s main recommendation is for the DBT [Design Basis Threat] to be made uniform for all nuclear facilities posing risks of catastrophic nuclear terrorism – which includes nuclear power reactors and facilities containing nuclear weapons or significant quantities of fissile material – aiming to reduce the risk of successful terrorist attack on such facilities as close to zero as possible in light of available resources,” the “working paper” reads.
Before going on to argue the point, the two authors, Lara Kirkham and Alan J. Kuperman, Ph.D., make this assertion: “A terrorist with enough technical knowledge and means could drain a spent fuel pool, triggering a cladding fire that could result in the release of large amounts of radioactive material. This is similar to what occurred in 2011 in Fukushima, Japan, when an earthquake’s effects drained the spent fuel pools.”
What that statement suggests simply isn’t true. Anyone with even cursory knowledge of the ongoing Fukushima triple meltdowns knows that the SPFs didn’t drain and catch fire. Yet.
The fear has been that Fukushima Unit 4’s SPF could collapse, which it may do presently because of the worsening conditions of the groundwater-soaked soil beneath it. The perils of such a situation were addressed in EnviroReporter.com’s June 2012 article, The Unforgettable Fire.
If, as the DOD report suggests, the Fukushima SFPs had drained and caught fire, it would have taken out Tokyo and much of the main Japanese island of Honshū. That clearly didn’t happen. Yet.
How an error of this magnitude could make it into a report paid for by the head of our armed forces was not a question Kuperman, an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at U of T, and Kirkham’s supervisor, answered first admonishing this reporter to “[P]lease make sure you read the report.”
Of course the report was read or EnviroReporter.com wouldn’t have been able to catch the mistakes. This document was, of course, paid for the taxpayer but just how much is a mystery since Kuperman said he didn’t know. “I’m not trying to be evasive,” Kuperman wrote in an email. “But I honestly don’t have an exact figure because the funding did not come through me.”
Kuperman remained adamant that everything in the study was correct. “As for fact-checking, the report was subject to internal and external peer review,” Kuperman told EnviroReporter.com August 19. “I have not seen any documented claim that anything in the report is incorrect. Indeed, the report has 136 footnotes, which fully document all of its claims.”
Actually, the statement in question didn’t have a footnote. The error betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of the worst nuclear disaster in history. Then the Department of Defense made a concerted effort to publicize the research assistant’s working paper hence why its accuracy is crucial if its conclusions are to be taken seriously.
But it does prove a point: DOD paid for this work which boldly states all nuclear facilities, including reactors and spent fuel pools, ought to be thought of as the same.
There are 104 nuclear reactors in the United States. This series has covered just two of them, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and Peach Bottom Nuclear Generating Station. While both engage in the same industry of generating electricity through nuclear fission, their situations and histories are as different as one would expect.
San Onofre had the worst safety record of any nuclear plant in the country when its reactors were actually running. According to several reports, the site suffered from workplace pressure and harassment of employee whistleblowers. That problem could worsen as 1,000 longtime employees are let go by the end of 2013. Were SCE more active emptying its spent fuel pools and dry casking the rods, there would be plenty of jobs for these well-trained nuclear engineers who know the plant best.
The black swan of an angry fired employee or unemployed San Onofre worker is a consideration that takes flight when considering the consequences of a successful breach or destruction of a SONGS spent fuel pool. An inside job would be very hard to defend against unless the targets were hardened as this series suggests. Such a person might know the plant’s weaknesses and know how to sabotage the plant without getting caught.
In fact, it has already happened. During November 2012, SONGs supervisors informed the NRC that someone had spiked with coolant the oil reserve of one of the reactor’s emergency backup generators. This could have caused the generator to seize up during an emergency which could have led to a meltdown had this grievous act had not gone detected. The Federal Bureau of Investigation was called in shortly after SCE reported the crime to the NRC. The FBI has not announced any arrests in the case.
The number of allegations of reactor problems at San Onofre substantiated by the NRC far exceeded any other reactor site in the nation. SONGS Units 2 and 3 garnered 16 such “reactor allegations” in 2009, 28 in 2010 and 15 in 2011 and 2012 combined. There have been no such allegations recorded in 2013 through June. The NRC responded to 15 of the 16 complaints in 2009, half of the 2010 total and two in 2011 and 2012.
“Each year, the NRC issues a report about its Allegations Program discussing issues like trends in allegation numbers nationwide and at selected nuclear plants,” wrote David Lochbaum June 11. Lochbaum is the director of the Nuclear Safety Project with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “When there’s a significant increase in the number of allegations received by the NRC concerning a specific plant, the NRC looks behind the numbers for any underlying reasons, such as safety culture problems. The NRC documents its conclusions from these probes in the annual reports. Recently, the NRC probed allegations received for the San Onofre, Susquehanna, Turkey Point, St. Lucie, and Indian Point plants.”
Taken all together, the shuttering of SONGS actually could bode well for SCE and many of the laid-off workers if recommendations in this series are taken. There is no better a workforce for the job of securing San Onofre more robustly than the men and women of SONGS because they know every nook and cranny. These talented and trained workers could be needed solving SONGS security issues as well and have already passed security clearances.
But it’s unlikely that SCE would take such measures. The company has consistently put profits first.
The Fight Goes On
Thankfully, some of the local heroes responsible for shutting down San Onofre are continuing their hard work to keep their communities, and Southern California, safe.
“San Onofre fuel pools and dry cask storage of high-level nuclear waste are of foremost concern, and potentially still a devastating disaster for our beloved Southern California community,” Gene Stone, head of Residents Organized for a Safe Environment, told EnviroReporter.com. “ROSE would like a seat at the table with the NRC & other federal and state regulators to figure out the best safest way to move forward with waste storage.”
This series has shown that the amazing victory that groups like ROSE won now has to be forged into the real fight: making SONGS and places like it including Peach Bottom, impervious to any terrorist attack.
The residents and their allies have shown the fortitude to shut down SONGS. This is an even higher mountain, one they may find the metal to climb. As long as SONGS’ SPF’s and dry casks are at risk, Southern California will remain hostage to them.
These champions of the anti-nuclear movement must step up where their corrupted and incompetent government won’t and seize the good future of Southern California before it’s lost to a black swan darkening the skies with it irradiated wings.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who introduced black swan theory, notes that a black swan surprise for a turkey is not a black swan surprise to its butcher. He suggests that we work to “avoid being the turkey” by identifying areas of vulnerability and fixing them.
That is the purpose of this series. With SONGS-specific vulnerabilities exposed, we can, and must, prevent black swan events at SONGS and other nuclear reactors and SFPs across the country.