It’s long been the stuff of nightmares for America’s top homeland-security officials. Well-trained terrorists assault one of the nation’s nuclear-power plants, nearly a dozen of which are near major metropolitan areas. The militants kill the facility’s private-security guards and make their way to the plant’s reactor. Federal law-enforcement personnel rush to the scene, but it’s too late. The terrorists trigger a full-scale nuclear meltdown, killing tens of thousands of people and rendering nearby cities uninhabitable for decades.
Nuclear-power advocates dismiss those fears as overblown, but the unfolding disaster in Japan is offering an unnervingly vivid illustration of how such an attack could be carried out.
Nuclear reactors across the United States are encased in enough concrete to withstand a direct hit from an airliner and can be shut down remotely in case of a terrorist strike or natural disaster. But that is true in Japan as well, and something entirely different caused the disaster there: the failure of the cooling systems that prevent nuclear reactors from overheating. The cooling systems aren’t encased in concrete, and key components—from pumps to water-intake pipes—sit outside the reactor complexes and are far less protected, leaving them vulnerable to a well-planned terrorist strike or a natural disaster. As the dire situation in Japan shows, disabling or destroying the cooling equipment—regardless of how it happens—can trigger a full-scale nuclear emergency.
“Even if you shut a reactor down, you still need to cool it off. That’s just physics,” said Charles Faddis, a retired CIA operations officer and former head of the agency’s unit on countering terrorism threats involving weapons of mass destruction. “If terrorists have disabled the cooling system, the reactor heat will eventually lead to a complete meltdown. They won’t produce mushroom clouds, but the results—clouds of radioactive materials drifting over vast areas—would be just as horrific.”
Nuclear-related terrorism fears are nothing new. Before the September 11 attacks, Qaida ringleader Mohamed Atta considered trying to crash a hijacked airliner into a nuclear-power plant near New York City, according to the 9/11 commission’s final report. Atta dropped the idea, but military and law-enforcement personnel believe that al-Qaida and other groups continue to dream of one day mounting a successful strike on a U.S. nuclear plant.
Americans’ worries about terrorism have faded in recent years amid pervasive gloom about joblessness and the overall state of the economy. Gallup runs a regular tracking poll with an open-ended question about what voters consider the most important problem facing the country. In its most recent survey, conducted March 3-6, 28 percent of respondents chose the economy, while 26 percent said unemployment. Terrorism was near the bottom, with just 2 percent. (The poll is based on telephone interviews with 1,021 adults and has a margin or error of plus or minus 4 points.)
The horrifying images from Japan may awaken dormant fears of a terrorist strike on a U.S. nuclear facility. That, in turn, would focus new attention on the private-security firms charged with keeping them secure—and on the evidence that suggests they might not be up to the job.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, an independent arm of the federal government, is tasked with monitoring security at nuclear plants. It uses teams of mock assailants to test readiness. At half the plants tested before September 11, the mock attackers were able to simulate the destruction of enough equipment to trigger a meltdown, “even though operators typically received six months’ advance notice of which day the test would occur,” the Union of Concerned Scientists noted in a 2007 report.
The commission has given the private-security firm Wackenhut a lucrative contract to provide the faux terrorists. Wackenhut also provides many of the guards protecting the plants. In a 2006 report, the Government Accountability Office found that one plant’s security personnel did better during a mock attack because they were given advance knowledge of the planned scenario. The following year, a Wackenhut guard named Kerry Beal videotaped security personnel sleeping in the inaptly named “ready room” at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. CBS later broadcast the tapes, and Wackenhut lost several of its security contracts.
NRC spokeswoman Prema Chandrathil said that the government continues to employ Wackenhut to provide fake assailants. She acknowledged that plants receive advance word of impending mock attacks, but said that the pretend raiders were kept separate from Wackenhut’s guards to ensure the integrity of the tests. The Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s main trade group, estimated that plant owners have spent more than $2 billion on new security measures since 9/11. On its website, the group points to a 2008 NRC report which concluded that “nuclear-power plants … continue to be among the best-protected private-sector facilities in the nation.”
“Our plants are very secure,” said Steve Kerekes, a spokesman for the group. “We’ve gone well beyond where the Japanese had been in terms of preparing for either a natural disaster or a terror attack.”
Federal personnel search all passengers trying to board commercial airliners, but they leave the security of the nation’s nuclear plants—which pose far greater potential dangers—in the hands of private guards. With luck, those guards will never be put to a real test. But luck, as Japan attests, sometimes runs out.
This article appears in the March 19, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.