The Nuclear Terrorists Are Coming: Break Out the Varsity Squad!

“In a briefing last week for the visiting commandant of the Marine Corps,” writes Nathan Hodge at the Wall Street Journal, Japan-based Marines “said the experience of Operation Tomodachi, the Japan relief effort launched after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, could help the U.S. military respond to worst-case battle scenarios.”

“This is varsity-level stuff,” Gen. [James] Amos said.

Hodge again:

Japan has become an unlikely laboratory for the U.S. to study modern warfare after the March nuclear accident created conditions like those the military could face if a terror group set off a “dirty” radiological bomb. It was the first time Marine aircraft had operated in a radiologically contaminated environment, and Lt. Col. Marsh [commander of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265], which was involved in the operation. . . told [Gen. Amos], “it’s not hard to believe that we could be responding someplace involving a disaster at a nuclear power plant, dirty bombs or terrorism.”

Fukushima has focused the attention of the world on the safety of nuclear plants. As Matthew Bunn of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs writes:

At Monday’s opening of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ministerial meeting in Vienna on what to do about nuclear safety after Fukushima, [IAEA] Director-General Yukiya Amano laid out a sensible five-point plan for improving global nuclear safety. But Amano missed a crucial point: Disasters like Fukushima can be caused not only be accident but by terrorist action. The nuclear industry in many countries is much less prepared to cope with security incidents than with accidents.

As if the nuclear industry (at least in Japan) was even prepared to cope with an accident. Dr. Bunn again (emphasis added).

[Thus] the need to take steps to strengthen global nuclear security – protecting against both sabotage of nuclear facilities and theft of nuclear weapons or the materials to make them — [is] particularly urgent. . . . Both al Qaeda and Chechen terrorist groups have repeatedly considered sabotaging nuclear reactors – and Fukushima provided a compelling example of the scale of terror such an attack might cause. Indeed, given the multiple layers of safety systems in place for nuclear facilities today – and the extraordinarily weak security measures in place in some countries – the chance that the next big radioactive release will happen because someone wanted to make it happen may well be bigger than the chance that it will happen purely by accident.

Back in 2003, at the New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote:

An attack on a nuclear power plant would seem to fulfill, almost perfectly, Al Qaeda’s objective of using America’s technology against it. In his State of the Union Message last year, President Bush announced that United States forces searching Afghan caves had indeed found diagrams of American reactors. Around the same time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, acting on information provided by the F.B.I., warned of a plot to crash a commercial aircraft into a plant. . . . As potential targets go, Indian Point [nuclear energy plant] seems almost too obvious. It is situated on the Hudson River . . . thirty-five miles from midtown Manhattan. . . . A 1982 analysis by a congressional subcommittee estimated that, under worst-case conditions, a catastrophe at one of the Indian Point reactors could result in fifty thousand fatalities and more than a hundred thousand radiation injuries. . . . By an uncomfortable coincidence, American Airlines Flight 11, just minutes before it slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center, flew almost directly over Indian Point’s twin reactor domes.

Then there’s the threat of cyberwarfare, as exemplified by the impact that the virus Stuxnet has had on Iran’s nuclear program. Still, as Seymour Hersh wrote in a New Yorker piece last November, The Online Threat, which is a cautionary tale about the dangers of allowing the intelligence communities and the military to hype cyberwarfare: “There is surprising unanimity among cyber-security experts on one issue that the immediate cyber threat does not come from traditional terrorist groups like Al Qaeda.”

He quotes John Arquilla of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School: “Terrorist groups are. . . . not that interested in. . . . attacking our computer system.” When it comes to cyber security, their priority is to “protect their operations.” Still, Hersh warns: “As terrorist groups get better at defense, they may eventually turn to offense.”

Meanwhile, as Bunn writes

. . . attempting to separate safety and security is wrongheaded as the two are integrally linked. Better safety measures can make a facility more secure (by making it more difficult to sabotage, or keeping better control of where nuclear material is within a plant), and better security measures can make a plant safer. . . . Ultimately, a nuclear facility cannot truly be safe unless it is also secure.

Three years ago, the World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS) was launched in Vienna at an IAEA conference, the first organization dedicated to strengthening the “physical protection and security of nuclear and radioactive materials and facilities worldwide.” After another conference in May, this time about Fukushima, WINS issued this statement, which I’ve excerpted:

Safety and security have traditionally been regulated and managed in isolation from each other. Safety management has been the responsibility of operators, engineers, safety managers and scientists, whereas security [is] frequently led by ex-military and police personnel. . . . This situation must change. The complex, interconnected nature of safety, security and emergency management requires convergence.