Nuclear Security

The terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 (9/11) alerted the world to the potential of nuclear terrorism – making it “far more likely”, according to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that terrorists could target nuclear facilities, nuclear material and radioactive sources worldwide.

An explosion, aircraft crash, earthquake or act of sabotage could lead to a breach of one of the High Level Waste (HLW) Liquid Storage Tanks at Sellafield, for example. This could ultimately lead to an atmospheric release of volatile radionuclides. The long-term consequences of a release from the Sellafield HLW tanks could be much greater than the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, due to the large amounts of caesium-137 and other radioisotopes in the Sellafield tanks. A 50% release from Sellafield would involve a release of about 40 times the amount of caesium-137 released by Chernobyl.1

In 2010 the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA) carried out an impact assessment of a “worst-case” hypothetical accident at Sellafield’s HLW liquid waste tanks. The report concludes that if only 1% of the caesium is released to air, the radioactive fallout in Western Norway could be five times higher than in the areas of Norway that were worst affected by the Chernobyl accident.2

Nuclear facilities have not been designed to withstand a deliberate crash by a jumbo jet full of fuel or many other types of attack. A successful attack could have widespread and catastrophic consequences for both the environment and public health. The extent of damage caused will depend on the type of nuclear facility, the nature of the attack, weather conditions and the success of mitigation measures put in place.

A July 2004 Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) report entitled: Assessing the risk of terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities provides an overview of what is publicly known about the risks and the consequences of such an attack, either at a facility in the UK, or overseas, with very direct impacts in the UK. This report identifies the main issues of concern according to reports in the public domain, and highlights areas where understanding is limited due to lack of publicly available information.

A March 2007 Briefing Paper published by the Oxford Research Group (ORG), called Secure Energy: Civil Nuclear Power, Security and Global Warming,  compares the security consequences of civil nuclear power to its contribution to tackling climate change, and shows that rather than making a positive contribution, an expansion of civil nuclear power would: Make efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons much more difficult; Increase the risk of nuclear terrorism.; Make a negligible short-term contribution to lowering CO2 emissions; Make a negligible contribution to energy security. Much of the disagreement about the security implications of nuclear power revolves around whether the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation and terrorism risks can be managed. Using the most recent research ORG shows that these risks will become much harder to manage. In fact a new nuclear build would take us into uncharted and very dangerous waters.

It might be thought that new reactors would be designed to withstand the impact of a jumbo jet, but a leaked document by Electricite de France (EdF) on the vulnerability to terrorist attack of the new European Pressurised water Reactor (EPR) – being considered or already under construction in several countries including UK, France and Finland – reveals a dangerously flawed approach to security. Nuclear engineering consultancy, Large and Associates, has assessed the secret EdF document and concluded that it includes seriously flawed assumptions about whether the reactor could withstand a potential terrorist attack using hijacked commercial aircraft.

More recently Large and Associates have looked at the vulnerability of French Nuclear Power Plants to an airplane crash. France’s 58 operating NPPs were designed and constructed before the accidental crash of a commercial-sized aircraft was conceived as a real threat and, indeed, at the time of the source design of many of these NPPs commercial aircraft were smaller and air traffic movements less frequent. All of France’s NPPs were commissioned and in commercial operation prior to the events of 9 September 2001, a date that signalled a seed change in the motive, modus operandi and scale of outcome of acts of terrorism.

In late summer 2012 the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) set up an independent expert panel to advise our Chief Nuclear Inspector on accidental aircraft crash hazard assessment. ONR says it requires nuclear licensees to prove that the risk associated with aircraft crash is as low as reasonably practicable.3 According to Large and Associates the Technical Advisory Panel on Aircraft Crashes will NOT study Aircraft Crashes, because the Terms of Reference will not include containment damage severity and radiological consequences of potential release scenarios. The Panel will only look at accidental aircraft crashes, not malevolent ones. 4

For more information see:

1. High Level Radioactive Liquid Waste at Sellafield, by Dr Gordon Thompson, IRSS, June 1998
2. Consequences in Norway of a Hypothetical Accident in Sellafield, Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, 2010. and Norwegian Ministry of the Environment Press Release 26th March 2009.
3. ONR Quarterly News July – September 2012 page 14
4. See e-mail from ONR to John Large’s e-mail dated 15th August 2012


Published: 5 December 2012
Last updated: 8 December 2012