The treat of terrorists using radiological devices within the United States is a probable event. It is not a question of if, but a question of when and how. Developing and employing nuclear weapons is a costly and timely development that would most likely be detected by the world arena and would be thwarted before employment is possible. Therefore terrorist organizations will most likely use more unconventional techniques such as attacks on U.S. nuclear reactors, dirty bombs, and the use of cargo ships. Since these techniques have not been employed before, it is difficult to properly assess the damage they might cause. One thing is for certain, these attacks will have a profound effect on the public perception of safety and security. Nuclear Reactor Security and Attacks
Since 9/11 Civilian controlled reactor security has been a vital concern. Not only could an attack on a civilian reactor cause mass disruption with the loss of electrical power, a loss of public confidence but it could cause a loss of control of nuclear material and a loss of radiological containment.
Since 9/11 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) passed numerous regulations on reactor security. According to 10 C.F.R 73 all commercial reactors are required to have a minimal three security zones and a trained security force. These three zones are divided into an owner controlled buffer zone, a protected area and a vital area. All employees have to be granted and cleared access based on the employee’s responsibilities. Moreover, this revision to reactor physical security plan expands the capabilities of reactor security personnel to be able to remove an employee’s access if the employee shows signs of being disgruntled or shows signs that he or she might compromise reactor security.
There is a vulnerability to air attack on civilian reactors. Reactors that have a low profile design have a lower risk threat than higher profile designed plant. However, we are making assumptions on the effects of an air attack to a civilian reactor since there has never been a successful attempt on one. The two civilian reactor incidents that have occurred; Three Mile Island and Chernobyl both occurred due to operator error and design flaws.
The NRC and Westinghouse are amending design of nuclear power plants to reflect the possible threat of an air attack. However, the chairman of the NRC, Nils Diaz stated that it would be close to impossible for a plane to crash into a reactor and cause a sustained fire unless “the attacking plane penetrated the containment completely, including its fuel bearing range” (Holt, CRS-6).
During a recent interview with personnel at the Millstone reactor plant in Connecticut, this containment plan was confirmed. Personnel at Millstone stated that they keep spent uranium 235 fuel (about 7-10% pure) in a concrete building in Horizontal Storage Units (HSU). The HSUs are shielded containers that are double hulled and welded shut. The fuel is also surrounded by lead neutralizing rods and boron. Boron is used also in the reactor core to control the amount of fission.Dirty Bombs (likely hood and effects)
The effects of dirty bombs are vague and the outcomes depend on many factors. It depends on the type of radiological fuel that was used, the purity of the fuel, the amount of the fuel and the explosive fuel used. It also depends on environmental effects such as wind, rain, heat, wind, etc. A dirty bomb has never been ignited or set off in the world, therefore society can only estimate on the possible outcome.
In a recent article by Joseph Hattersley, Mr. Hattersley questions the effects on low dose radiation on the public health. Mr. Hattersley goes as far as to say low doses of radiation may actually be beneficial to the public health with the exception of first responders to the scene on the day of a dirty bomb explosion. “But after the first day, any remaining radiation from such a device may not be dangerous, and may well be beneficial” (Hattersley, pg 90). Mr. Hattersley states that the general science used to estimate the effects of a dirty bomb explosion is based on Linear-no threshold which is based on a single particle of radiation interacting with a single cell molecule in the body that can initiate cancer, then that is multiplied the number of initiating events. However, this science does not include and ignores the natural biological defenses that occur in the body in order to block radiation. “And a substantial body of evidence now indicates that low level radiation stimulates such biological defense mechanisms” (Hattersley, pg 90).
Hattersley’s assumptions while risky, does make sense when assessing the effects of a dirty bomb. A dirty bomb would not be able to produce gamma or neutron radiation (at least at a very low dosage) since the radioactive material would be blown apart from each other. The majority of the radiation would be alpha and beta radiation. Alpha radiation is blocked by the human skin but can cause the most damage to the human body if it is inhaled, injected or enters through an open wound. Beta radiation can be blocked by a simple piece of paper. Both alpha and beta radiation does not travel very far.Naval Security
Perhaps one of the most porous American borders face is America’s maritime borders. Not only do Americans have to secure the country’s east coast on the Atlantic and the western coast on the pacific, but the military has to secure the coasts off Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico, and other US territories. The US Navy also maintains security on US international corporations throughout the world. Even with the world’s largest Navy and largest Coast Guard, the US Naval forces cannot monitor the entire coast and intercept all cargo ships incoming to US territories.
Under current international maritime law, the US Navy cannot board and search a vessel flying a foreign flag. It would be considered an act of war for naval forces to board a foreign vessel in international waters. There are actually only four times that we can board a foreign vessel:
1. Within 12 miles of US borders can the Coast Guard board and inspect.
2. If there is a bilateral or multilateral agreement with the country that the ship is claiming (flag being flown, not the owner of the ship).
3. If the ship is not flying any flag and not claiming any nationality.
4. Safety or emergency search to safe life.
Since 9/11 the United Nations has passed maritime resolution requiring merchant
ships to transmit continuously while underway on the Automated Information Systems (AIS). The AIS transmits on high frequency with information about the ship’s name, the captain, the destination, course, speed, company, and other information. It is a self programmed system and is required to be updated as the ship’s situation changes. The large benefit of the AIS system is that it indicates if a ship is doing something different than what they say they are going to do. For instance a ship transmitting that they are transiting from Lisbon to New York yet they are travelling on course 090 (east).
This would create a red flag with the navy that something is not right with this ship and they should closely monitor it and perhaps notify the differences.
Even with these safeguards in maritime safety, since the 12 mile has not been extended for coastal security (there is a 200 mile economic exclusion zone, but that only applies for fishing, minerals and mining, etc.) America’s maritime borders are not secure. A Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) ship could leave the port of Lisbon for New York. This ship could be transmitting all information on the AIS correctly and not fall suspect of any illegal activity by the US Navy. At the same time a ship with a nuclear device could leave Sal Paulo, Brazil for Lisbon. These two ships could meet in the Mid-Atlantic and transfer the nuclear payload to the LNG container ship. If the US Navy detects the short rendezvous with the two ships, the US navy would need to get permission from the State Department to board the LNG ship which now has the nuclear device. If the navy does not detect the rendezvous (which is most likely the case because who would transfer anything with a Spruance destroyer off the port bow), it would now be up the Coast Guard to board and inspect the LNG ship. However, there is still nothing to suspect the LNG ship has a nuclear device, so the Coast Guard will not inspect.
If the Coast Guard does want to do a random inspection on this LNG ship, they would wait until the 12 mile coastal limit. If the LNG ship is doing 30 knots, then that would give the Coast Guard only 2 hours to board, detect and stop the LNG ship and nuclear device.
That is just one likely scenario concerning a LNG container ship and a dirty or nuclear bomb within a US port. According to Parfomak and Frittelli Al-Qaeda has stated that they are interested in maritime bombing at key maritime shipping routes that can seriously hinder world shipping. For instance bombing a cargo ship in the Straits of Gibraltar or Straits of Malacca would be devastating to world commerce. Blowing up a ship within the Panama Canal would damage canal locks and would devastate US commerce. Sinking ships in the Straits of Humuz would secure access to the Persian Gulf. Sinking a ship in the Suez Canal would require US Atlantic naval vessels to transverse Africa to go the Persian Gulf adding another week of travel. Pacific naval vessels would use the Straits of Malacca which could easily be blocked with a sunken ship. A nuclear detonation on a ship in these locations could make a canal unusable for many years.Conclusion
Any attack on US soil would be devastating to US perception of safety and security. I would make US citizens question their government officials, the government infrastructure, port security and power infrastructure. This public reaction would be amplified if a radiological attack occurred. Even though the effects of a radiological accent may not have civilian causalities and severity as some conventional attacks, the general public mentality would be affected deeply. An attack on a conventional power station such as the Wolf Creek Dam could cause the death of millions of people in Tennessee, while an air attack on Millstone Nuclear Power Plant in Connecticut might only cause the deaths of hundreds of people. Yet the scare of nuclear contamination, even in a low dosage which might be beneficial, would create a public scare frenzy. The same is true for an ignition of a dirty bomb in a public highly populated area.
The biggest threat to the US population is through maritime shipping. It is very easy for terrorists to ship radiological material (or other CBRN weapons) into a US port. The device does not have to be a dirty bomb; the shipping container may actually contain a fully operational gun ignition style nuclear bomb (if the group was able to design one without detection). Once this is in a US port, the terrorists could ignite it without detection.
Overall maritime law needs to be revised in international law. The 12 mile limit needs to be placed out further allowing the Coast Guard the ability to board and search ships at a safer distance to US soil. Moreover intelligence sharing needs to happen at a much quicker means between US government agencies. If the US Navy detects suspicious activity with a vessel, the information needs to be rapidly transferred to Coast Guard units. Finally Coast Guard units need up to date radiological detection equipment and British style S.E.S terrorist fighting unit to be used when boarding large container ships that may have terrorists on board.
Hattersley, J. (2005). Of Dirty Bombs and Health Benefits of Low-Level Radiation and Toxins. Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patients, January 2005.
Hirsh, D. (year unknown). The Truck Bomb and Insider Threats to Nuclear Facilities. Retrieved 22 July 2010.
Holt, M. & Andrews, A. (2008). Nuclear Power Plant Security and Vulnerabilities. CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service. Retrieved 28 July 2010 from www.crs.com
Lyman, E. & Leventhal, P. (Date Unknown). Radiological Sabotage at Nuclear Power Plants: A Moving Target Set. Retrieved 23 July 2010 from Course Folder.
Kelly, H. (2002). Dirty Bombs: Response to a Threat. Public Interest Report, vol 55 num.2. Retrieved 22 July 2010.
Parfomak, P. & Frittelli, J. (2007). Maritime Security: Potential Terrorist Attacks and Protection Priorities. CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service. Retrieved 28 July 2010 from www.crs.com