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Are U.S. Nuclear Reactors Adequately Protected Against Credible Terrorist Attacks?

AUSTIN, Texas – August 15, 2013 – The Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (NPPP) at The University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs has released a report titled “Protecting U.S. Nuclear Facilities from Terrorist Attack: Re-assessing the Current ‘Design Basis Threat’ Approach."

Some key findings of the report include:

  • Some U.S. nuclear power plants are vulnerable to terrorist attack from the sea, but they are not required to protect against such ship-borne attacks.
  • Another serious terrorism danger is posed by three civilian research reactors that are fueled with bomb-grade uranium, which is vulnerable to theft to make nuclear weapons.  These facilities are not defended against a posited terrorist threat, unlike military facilities that hold the same material. 

Report co-author LBJ School Associate Professor Alan J. Kuperman, the coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, recently alerted nuclear security specialists to these dangers in a presentation at the annual meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management.  

Commenting on the new NPPP report, Prof. Kuperman said:  “More than 10 years have come and gone since the events of September 2001, and America’s civilian nuclear facilities remain unprotected against a terrorist attack of that scale.  Instead, our civilian reactors prepare only against a much smaller-scale attack, known as the “design basis threat,” while the government fails to provide supplementary protection against a realistic 9/11-type attack. It would be a tragedy if the United States had to look back after such an attack on a nuclear reactor and say that we could have and should have done more to prevent the catastrophe.”

The NPPP report also notes that some U.S. government nuclear facilities – operated by the Pentagon and Department of Energy – are protected against most or all of the above threats.  But other U.S. government nuclear sites remain unprotected against such credible threats.

Contact Susan Binford, 512-415-4820, susan.binford@austin.utexas.edu

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This working paper was researched and written primarily by Lara Kirkham, a graduate research assistant at the NPPP, supplemented with editing and contributions by Prof. Alan J. Kuperman, coordinator of the NPPP. It was prepared as part of a larger inter-disciplinary study at the University of Texas at Austin for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which provided financial support for the research. The authors thank Matthew Bunn of Harvard University and Alex Athey of the University of Texas at Austin for their helpful comments on an earlier draft.