Tuesday, October 18, 2005

How to get into a U.S. nuclear facility: act casual

Okay, so ABC's map of U.S. nuclear sites under the heading “LOOSE NUKES” is maybe a little sensational. But the vulnerabilities are real.

It should have been a reality show. ABC split 10 Carnegie Fellows (graduate students, basically) into teams and sent them on a road trip to 25 lovely U.S. college campuses and their quaint nuclear reactors. Hilarity dutifully ensued.
  • At Ohio State:
    The Fellows arrived unannounced and were given access to the reactor and its control room for a tour by the retired director, who was gardening outside. He unlocked the building door, which leads directly to the reactor room, and let the Fellows in carrying bags and without checking ID.
    What a nice guy. OSU's comment on this little security incident: “We did an exceptional job.”

  • At Texas A&M:
    A nuclear engineering student led the detailed 90-minute tour, during which the Fellows stood above the reactor pool and videotaped the reactor pool and core, while the reactor was running. When a Fellow asked whether there were any guards at the facility, the tour guide chuckled and said: “No, I mean, did you see any guards? Yeah, there's no guards and stuff.”
    The building with no guards and stuff contains up to 17 kg of highly enriched uranium.

  • At University of Maryland:
    The doors to the reactor building were propped open with a garbage can and remained open throughout the day and night. [...]

    “I think the security is completely perfect here,” said Reactor Director Mohamad al-Sheikhly. “I am not concerned at all about the terrorists.”
    We're not either, really, but that's because we're plastered. What's al-Sheikhly's excuse?

  • ABC didn't even have to send anyone to Los Alamos National Laboratory. They just interviewed its senior safety officer, Christopher Steele.
    According to Steele, the equivalent of 5,000 pounds of plutonium in barrels of radioactive waste is stored outside the laboratory under a tent. There it is vulnerable to theft and would be extremely dangerous if detonated on site, where it would release a radioactive plume.
The Alarmist is just grateful Fox didn't have the idea first. They'd have sent Paris Hilton and Nichole Richie—and come away with a full nuclear arsenal.


At 1:57 PM, Blogger Helen said...

They'd have sent Paris Hilton and Nichole Richie—and come away with a full nuclear arsenal.

-lol- That is very scary, though.

At 6:34 AM, Blogger Eric McErlain said...

This story has massive holes -- from the fact that information was ommitted from the report (the interns were thrown off the tour at Ohio State, and were detected prior to their visits to most of the facilities) to outright distortions on the amounts of uranium involved and the ardous processes that would still have to be completed in order to weaponize any of the uranium.

The bottom line: these are public facilities and they're meant to be found. In some cases, the reactors don't produce enough powe to light a Christmas tree.

Click here to start. And check back for constant updates.

At 8:42 AM, Blogger jto said...

I'm not sure where to start.

If someone can walk into a building containing a nuclear power plant without showing ID, carrying a backpack, that facility is begging to be bombed.

That the alert was raised quickly is commendable--and significant. ABC should've reported it. But it makes no difference if these sites remain accessible to anyone, without a background check or a personal search. Particularly sites with highly enriched uranium.

That more work is needed to turn enriched uranium into a bomb is irrelevant. Obtaining uranium in the first place is the most difficult step.

Nuclear sites should be at least as secure as airports. Obviously they're not.

At 9:17 AM, Blogger jto said...

In some cases, the reactors don't produce enough powe to light a Christmas tree.

All the ones I mentioned are 250-kilowatt-plus reactors, according to ABC.

At 11:15 AM, Blogger Eric McErlain said...

Wrong again. Removing the uranium from these facilities is no easy task -- as a former reactor operator from both Reed College and Oregon State said on NEI Nuclear Notes:

I'm a "retired" SRO who years ago pulled rods at the Reed College reactor and also had experiments performed at the Oregon State University, so it was some interest to me of how this piece of pseudo-journalism would portray these facilities... I chatted with another operator who was onsite when a shipment of HEU fuel arrived. The fuel was transported by an armed military(?) convoy to the OSU site, the spent elements were transferred to the storage racks, and the new fuel added to the core. A core excess measurement was performed followed by a power calibration with armed guards on watch. They didn't leave until the core had operated at 900 MW for over an hour at which point the fuel was considered self-protected by the intense radiation generated by the fission products...

Having moved fuel rods in and out of the core of the Reed facility, I find the ABC report even more incredulous... One thing I do remember is that there was a mark on the fuel movement tool that was assigned a spotter, that would call out if it approached the surface of the pool. This was of course backed up by the RAM located at the edge of the pool. To make a long story short, we were told that an irradiated fuel element had a radiation field sufficient to place the fuel handler into convulsions(before they finally succumbed to the radiation exposure effects) before it breached the surface of the pool. Beyond this, the idea of a SCUBA equipped terrorist diving to the core to steal the fuel might seem plausible to the public, but not to a person versed in the effects of exposure to a radiation 100-200K rad/hr radiation field.

And that doesn't even begin to talk about the complex industrial processes that you need to undertake in order to harvest the elements you need for a bomb from that material -- and in the case of these facilities. Simply put, there isn't a DIY kit available for that.

Finally, these are not nuclear power plants. They are test and research reactors, and run at temperatures and pressures far lower than commercial nuclear power plants. There simply isn't a comparison between the two.

At 3:59 PM, Blogger jto said...

You know what, you're right. It's completely appropriate for the back door to a nuclear facility to be propped open with a trash can all night. Random unidentified people should be allowed to come and go through unguarded nuclear facilities where there's fissile material.

The stuff is self-protected. Bad guys can't extract fuel rods. It's impossible. Fuel rods can only be inserted.

And there are no bad guys that can turn enriched uranium into weapons. It's just too hard. Only good guys have access to that kind of technology.

Thanks for straightening me out. I feel so much better.


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