New NPPP Study: U.S. Nuclear Facilities Vulnerable to Terrorist Attack

In a July 2013 paper and presentation at the annual meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, the NPPP reports that some U.S. nuclear facilities are inadequately protected against theft of weapons-grade materials and sabotage by terrorists.  The INMM paper and presentation are both based on a longer NPPP Working Paper #1 — “Protecting U.S. Nuclear Facilities from Terrorist Attack: Re-assessing the Current ‘Design Basis Threat’ Approach” — co-authored by former NPPP graduate research assistant Lara Kirkham and NPPP coordinator Alan J. Kuperman.

The NPPP notes that nuclear power plants are not required to protect against a credible terrorist attack such as occurred on September 11, 2001.  Even some U.S. government nuclear facilities are not protected against a credible threat because security officials argue that terrorists do not value the sites or that the consequences would not be catastrophic. To the contrary, the paper explains, it is impossible to know which high-value nuclear targets are preferred by terrorists, or which attacks would have the gravest consequences.

Accordingly, the NPPP recommends that Washington should require a level of protection at all potentially high-consequence U.S. nuclear targets – including both power reactors and facilities with bomb-grade material – that is sufficient to defend against a maximum credible terrorist attack.  To meet this standard at commercial facilities, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission should upgrade its “design basis threat,” and the U.S. government should provide the requisite additional security that is not supplied by the private-sector licensees.