Guarding Nuclear Reactors and Materials from Terrorists and Thieves

Journal Article

Published By

Arms Control Today

October 2001

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For decades the United States has sought international standards to ensure that nuclear facilities and materials are physically protected against theft and sabotage. On September 11, the need for such an initiative became strikingly apparent as analysts pondered the other possible targets of a terrorist attack. What would have been the loss of life if, for example, a hijacker had crashed a fuel-laden jetliner into a nuclear reactor, causing a meltdown and dispersing radioactive material?

Indeed, just days after the attacks, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), made it clear that the attack had dramatic implications for the nuclear industry and for non-proliferation: “The tragic terrorist attacks on the United States were a wake-up call to us all. We cannot be complacent. We have to and will increase our efforts on all fronts—from combating illicit trafficking to ensuring the protection of nuclear materials—from nuclear installation design to withstand attacks to improving how we respond to nuclear emergencies.”

Spencer Abraham, the U.S. secretary of energy, appeared before the IAEA to urge “maintaining the highest levels of security over nuclear materials.” “We need to strengthen international commitments and cooperation on the physical protection of nuclear materials, particularly those that can readily be converted to weapons use,” he said.

If terrorists were willing to kill thousands of innocent people in suicidal attacks against buildings symbolizing America’s economic and military power, they would probably not hesitate to use truck bombs made of conventional explosives to attack nuclear reactors in order to create clouds of radioactivity like those produced by the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl. They would have little trouble acquiring anti-tank weapons that could blow up the heavy canisters in which radioactive spent fuel from nuclear reactors is transported through populated areas. It is even possible that they could acquire fissile material from one of the poorly guarded nuclear facilities around the world and find scientists willing to make nuclear weapons.

Current international agreements do not require that nuclear material and facilities in domestic use be guarded against thieves or saboteurs, including terrorists. This is a dangerous gap in the global barrier against proliferation. The IAEA has taken the first steps toward requiring measures to physically protect nuclear materials, but it is essential that this effort be pursued expeditiously and that countries take all reasonable steps to ensure that nuclear material is not part of the next terrorist attack.

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