EDITORIAL: Attacks on nuclear sites are best prevented by abolishing the plants

March 08, 2013

A company in the United States trains operators of nuclear plants in how to defend them under terrorist attack.

It organizes squads of "terrorists" armed with laser guns and dispatches them to storm the site. Plant security guards, also armed with laser guns, defend it. The rules are that if a laser beam hits someone, he must fall. Will the terrorists seize the plants, or will the guards retain control?

The training, known as "Force on Force," is conducted at least once every three years at nuclear power plants under the initiative of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

After the exercise, the NRC thoroughly evaluates the plants' performance.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, as a precaution against attacks on nuclear power plants, operators were required to install additional equipment to cover scenarios of complete power failure and to strengthen training of staff to protect the 104 reactors nationwide.

Still, some critics say such measures are in themselves insufficient to counter terrorism. This is because the March 2011 disaster at Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant exposed the weaknesses of nuclear power plants in the face of enemies.

If terrorists destroy back-up functions and cut off the water and power supply, they might be able to create a whole new Fukushima crisis.

One Achilles heel revealed by that accident is the fact that storage pools for spent nuclear fuel are located outside the containment vessels and, therefore, may have insufficient protection, says Edwin Lyman, a senior researcher with the Union of Concerned Scientists, an American nongovernmental organization.

GUARDING AGAINST NEW THREATS

U.S. nuclear power plants use the "design basis threat" principle in re-examining design standards in proportion to the threat level.

When weaknesses become clear after terrorist attacks or accidents, threat levels rise and design standards are revised. Since the Fukushima disaster, the NRC has been leaning toward the introduction of remedial measures.

Worry is rising, too, about potential cyber-attacks. Terrorists could hack systems and thereby interfere with power sources by remote control and perhaps disable cooling functions.

According to the U.S. Nuclear Energy Institute, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. nuclear power industry has spent a total of $1.2 billion (about 114 billion yen) on improving its facilities. It says that compared with the World Trade Center buildings, nuclear facilities are smaller and it is difficult for terrorists to mount attacks by air. Furthermore, it explains that nuclear plant operators need not worry about cyber-attacks if they sever links between their computer networks and the outside world.

However, Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, a cyber-terrorism analyst, disagrees. If terrorists bring in USB flash drives, they can easily infect systems with viruses, he argues, saying they could be spies.

As threats increase, what measures are appropriate to counter them? Even the United States, which stakes its prestige as a superpower on preventing any recurrence of international terrorism, has yet to find ways to deal with enemies that remain invisible.

JAPAN DILEMMA

In February this year, an official in charge of emergency measures at Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority visited the NRC to outline new plant safety standards scheduled to be drafted in July. The official asked for reactions.

One pillar of the new standards will be anti-terrorism measures. If a plane hits a nuclear power plant, all power sources could fail. To prepare for such a scenario, nuclear reactors should have decentralized power sources for their cooling systems, built in different places. A second, back-up control room is also needed, at least 100 meters away.

But instead of leaving severe-accident preparation to the plant operating utilities to implement at will, the government should require by law operators to fulfill the measures.

Japan has already taken measures such as creating restricted areas and installing fences and security cameras around important facilities, measures based on the nuclear material security guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

However, the first meeting of the Nuclear Regulation Authority to review nuclear security measures, held on March 4, revealed haphazard checking of the identities of plant workers.

First, Japan needs to understand that other nations see it as an "underdeveloped" country in terms of nuclear security.

But on the other hand, it is unreasonable to import the U.S. approach and to station armed private security guards at plants. Therefore, what kind of methods should Japan use to respond to crises? It faces a dilemma.

SPECIAL CONTAINERS

Last autumn, a South Korean Internet media outlet quoted a North Korean official as saying: "If we attack Japanese nuclear power plants with missiles, we can cause explosions 320 times greater than that caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima." The official was identified as an executive of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea.

The authenticity of the report is unclear. But it is a fact that many Japanese nuclear reactors, including those on the Sea of Japan coast, stand within the scope of North Korea's intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

In 2007, an Israeli air force fighter-bomber reportedly flew into Syrian airspace and bombed a nuclear facility in the east of the country. We cannot rule out similar possible attacks on our nuclear power plants.

Between 10,000 and 20,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel are currently held at Japanese nuclear power plants and related facilities. If idled nuclear reactors are restarted, they will produce more spent fuel.

What should we do to protect them from attack? We cannot rely fully on missile defense systems with imperfect interception rates. Nor can we indefinitely expand anti-terrorism measures.

The only way to truly reduce the risk is to reduce the number of nuclear reactors as soon as possible. At the same time, spent nuclear fuel currently kept in storage pools should be moved to solid, air-cooled containers.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe insists it will cancel a pledge by the previous Democratic Party of Japan-led government to abolish all nuclear power plants by the end of the 2030s. The Abe administration also wants to restart idled nuclear reactors. Exactly what is its thinking regarding the safety of plants under potential attack?

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 8

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A U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector checks equipment at a nuclear power plant in Tennessee. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector checks equipment at a nuclear power plant in Tennessee. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • A U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspector checks equipment at a nuclear power plant in Tennessee. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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