Admiral Gene LaRocque (USN, Ret.)
President, Center for Defense Information
Admiral John Shanahan (USN, Ret.)
Director, Center for Defense Information
DIRECTOR OF RESEARCH:
David T. Johnson
DIRECTOR of TELEVISION:
PRINCIPAL ANALYST & SCRIPTWRITER:
Kathryn R. Schultz
16 February 1997
CONDITION OF USE: Credit "AMERICA'S DEFENSE MONITOR"
(Center for Defense Information).
(C) Copyright 1997, Center for Defense Information. All Rights Reserved.
Videotapes also available.
Former United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency Inspector
Nuclear Control Institute
Researcher. Resides near Three Mile Island
Former Nuclear Weapons Designer
Communications Manager, Three Mile Island
How soon could developing nations have nuclear weapons? What threat does nuclear waste present in the food you eat? Could our own nuclear power reactors become potentially devastating terrorist weapons?
"AMERICA'S DEFENSE MONITOR" presents a three-part series: Nuclear Dangers in our Midst. Discover what every American citizen needs to know about vital nuclear issues. This week on "AMERICA'S DEFENSE MONITOR" --
PAUL LEVENTHAL: One truck bomb attack against a US nuclear power plant could really change the course of history of this country, in terms of what the potential consequences are. You could have Chernobyl-type consequences or worse from that kind of an accident. And therefore, you have to protect against it.
Universal Newsreel Announcer: "Scientists of many nations -- American, British, Canadian and those driven from their homes by Nazi persecution --have perfected the atomic bomb, the most astounding development of scientific history. At the University of California, in absolute secrecy, Dr. Ernest O. Lawrence experimented with the cyclotron. Such work as his led to the splitting of the uranium atom, force of the atomic bomb.
"The energy that generates the heat of the sun and operates the solar system comes under the will of humankind."
NARRATOR: The energy produced by splitting atoms was first used to make weapons. Later, this energy was harnessed to provide electricity. Under the 1953 Atoms for Peace Initiative, launched by President Eisenhower, the United States promised to share the benefits of atomic power with the world.
President DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (UN Speech, December 1953): "The United States would be more than willing, it would be proud to take up with others principally involved the development of plans whereby such peaceful use of atomic energy would be expedited."
NARRATOR: There are now more than 400 operating nuclear power plants, plus numerous research reactors in 58 countries around the world. Any one of these countries, if determined to do so, could launch a nuclear weapons program.
Equally troublesome is the fact that every nuclear reactor and every site at which plutonium and highly enriched uranium are present is potentially a military or terrorist target. Sabotage or attack could cause a meltdown like Chernobyl, or worse.
If a country wants to begin a secret nuclear weapons program, civilian nuclear power is the place to start.
DAVID KAY: Much of the technology, the education, the equipment that you'd want to acquire can be acquired as if you were using it for your civilian program.
NARRATOR: David Kay spent eight years as an inspector with the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, which is charged with both promoting nuclear power and ensuring that these technologies and materials are not diverted to military applications.
Mr. KAY: If you look, for example, at Indonesia, which is interested in obtaining nuclear power -- I have no doubt that Indonesians is facing a serious energy problem, electricity problem. Asia is booming. So, I think that is not a cover for a military program.
If you look at Iran, Iran flares natural gas, huge quantities of natural gas day every day. They certainly don't have an energy problem, they have a military program that they're using a civilian program as a cover on.
NARRATOR: Iraq used its nuclear power program as cover for its secret nuclear weapons program. David Kay led one of the inspection teams that went into Iraq after the Gulf War. The ensuing four-day parking lot standoff garnered international attention.
Mr. KAY: Well, that particular inspection mission, we had information that indicated where the exact plans, the paper documents for the Iraqi program. And to put it in context, up to that point the Iraqis were denying that they ever had a nuclear weapons program. They were saying it was a figment of the imagination of the United States, it was trying to persecute them.
Once the Iraqis found out we had the documents, they decided that maybe they didn't want to let us out of the building or the parking lot around the building, and that led to the four-day standoff.
Ms. SCHULTZ : But you finally emerged with the documents.
Mr. KAY: Yes, we did. And, interestingly enough, since that point, there's been no dispute that there is an Iraqi nuclear weapons program. Even the Iraqis have admitted they had an active weapons program. They couldn't argue with the documents. And that's why that mission was so important.
NARRATOR: Kay and his inspection team were able to find and to seize these documents because after the Gulf War, the IAEA was given unprecedented access.
Mr. KAY: In the case of Iraq, we were able to use techniques that the normal IAEA inspector could not use. We went anywhere we wanted to with zero notice. The normal IAEA inspection, the country knows months in advance when you're coming and they've agreed as to exactly where you can go.
Ms. SCHULTZ: So, inspectors still cannot go anywhere at anytime.
Mr. KAY: That's quite right. And they cannot go anywhere at anytime, nor can they take instruments unless there's previous agreement of the state as to exactly what instrument they can take. We freely sampled environmental sampling around. In fact, that's how we got some of our best leads.
NARRATOR: Secret nuclear weapons programs remain a concern, but they're not the only threat.
Mr. KAY: I'm equally concerned about large states that have substantial nuclear fuel cycles, such as Russia, which have little or no inspection and very weak physical security. Crime and sabotage rather than direct diversion is the threat there.
NARRATOR: Kilogram quantities of highly enriched uranium and gram quantities of plutonium have been seized in Russia and several other nations of Eastern and Central Europe. Much of this material is believed to have been stolen from Russian research facilities, naval reactors, and weapons labs.
Assuming someone was able to acquire plutonium or highly enriched uranium, how difficult would it be to make a weapon?
Dr. TED TAYLOR: Building a nuclear weapon that would be big enough to kill 100,000 people in the financial district of New York is easy.
NARRATOR: Dr. Ted Taylor is a former nuclear weapons designer. He was later deputy director for technology of what was then called the Defense Atomic Support Agency in the Pentagon.
Dr. TAYLOR: Building something that could be carried in a car that is guaranteed to explode with a force equivalent to at least 100 tons -- a 100 tons -- of high explosive, that is easy.
NARRATOR: A 100-ton weapon would be equal in explosive force to 67 Oklahoma City bombs. Some argue that as long as we depend upon nuclear power reactors for electricity, we'll never be free from the threat that someone will use the technology or materials to make nuclear weapons.
Dr. TAYLOR: A country that has a nuclear power plant or nuclear research reactor, fairly high power, automatically, without any decision, is making plutonium, which is the hardest part of making a nuclear weapon.
NARRATOR: In a nuclear reactor, immense heat is generated by the splitting, or "fission," of enriched uranium fuel pellets. These fuel pellets are loaded into long metal tubes, or "fuel rods." When this fuel is used up, or "spent," the fuel rods look the same as before, except that they now contain the byproducts of fission: plutonium and other highly radioactive wastes. "Spent nuclear fuel" may be chemically reprocessed to separate the plutonium from the other radioactive substances. Once reprocessed, this so-called "reactor-grade plutonium" can be used to make nuclear weapons.
Dr. TAYLOR: All isotopes of plutonium that exist in any significant quantities at all, kilogram quantities at facilities, could be used to make nuclear weapons that are reliable and accurate and dependable, in terms of being able to be sure that you know what the yield is, and make nuclear weapons of all sizes.
NARRATOR: About 70,000 kilograms of plutonium are automatically produced each year by nuclear power plants worldwide. The world inventory is now approximately one million kilograms; that is, 1100 tons or roughly five times the amount of plutonium produced for the world's nuclear weapons. Two-hundred thousand kilograms of this civilian plutonium has been separated and could be used to make up to 60,000 small bombs.
Unlike the United States, several nations continue to reprocess spent nuclear fuel. France and Britain both operate reprocessing facilities. Japan, which already has the world's largest inventory of separated commercial plutonium, regularly sends its spent nuclear fuel to France for reprocessing. The separated plutonium and radioactive wastes are then shipped back to Japan, presumably for potential reuse as fuel.
En route the materials aboard these unarmed, unescorted ships are vulnerable to theft and sabotage.
PAUL LEVENTHAL: Right now there is en route from France to Japan a shipload of intensively radioactive, highly concentrated waste from a French reprocessing plant that is being sent to Japan as the result of reprocessing of Japanese spent fuel to extract plutonium.
NARRATOR: Paul Leventhal is president and founder of the Nuclear Control Institute, a non-profit research organization which monitors civil and military nuclear programs worldwide.
Mr. LEVENTHAL: In our view, the shipments aren't necessary at all because reprocessing is not necessary at all. But if they are going to do it, they ought to do it in a way that fully protects the ship.
NARRATOR: Paul Leventhal is also concerned that the shipping casks used by the French could leak if involved in a collision or if the ship does the unthinkable and sinks.
Mr. LEVENTHAL: And then in the event of a collision or long-term exposure to marine salts or sudden exposure to salt water, it could disintegrate before your eyes. Hard to believe, but true.
So, these are potentially highly vulnerable shipments. No problem if everything goes okay, and they cite the record where they have no major problems and, therefore, nothing to worry about in the future. But we've nicknamed the ship the "Plutannic" because every ship is assumed to be unsinkable until something happens that can sink it.
NARRATOR: Given the risks of accident and theft inherent in transport and the ease with which separated plutonium could be used to make bombs, why do some nations continue to reprocess spent nuclear fuel? Some nations use or plan to use plutonium as a reactor fuel. Separated commercial plutonium would be mixed with uranium into what is known as a mixed oxide fuel, or MOX.
MOX fuel could also be made using plutonium removed from nuclear warheads. It will not, however, render the plutonium unusable for weapons. MOX fuel is used in about a half-dozen countries and may soon be used at nuclear power reactors in the United States. Paul Leventhal thinks that the use of MOX fuel would be a big mistake because suddenly plutonium would be present in large quantities in the fuel itself.
Mr. LEVENTHAL: Then your local nuclear power plant will contain atom bomb material. And the fuel in that plant will have to be protected as if it is atom bomb material because if it were diverted or stolen, it could be turned into bombs. It changes the whole complexion of the civilian nuclear power program in the United States.
ABC News Report, 28 March 1979:"Near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, an accident at a
nuclear power plant. A spokesman said that a feedwater pump broke down this morning, automatically shutting down the Three Mile nuclear power plant. Some radiated steam escaped into the atmosphere before the plant could be sealed off, but officials said there is no threat to health."
NARRATOR: It was the accident on March 28th, 1979 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station about 10 miles from his home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that prompted Scott Portzline, a piano tuner by trade, to visit the library to research nuclear power plant safety. His research led him to gain all the knowledge an intruder might need to infiltrate and to sabotage a nuclear power plant.
SCOTT PORTZLINE: This is a diagram of the core spray system for the Peach Bottom nuclear plant and this is a safety system that would be relied upon as the reactor is being shut down in -- possibly in an emergency situation or if you have an intruder and sabotage. This could be one of the documents that you can get right here at the state library to learn everything you need to know about the schematics and how this system works, and then how to disable the system.
NARRATOR: But even if someone were armed with the knowledge of how to disable a nuclear power plant, the question remained: Could a saboteur get close enough to do any real damage? That question was answered affirmatively on one Sunday morning in February 1993.
Mr. PORTZLINE: Just before 7:00 a.m. on that Sunday morning, the intruder, driving down this road, is suffering from mental illness, turns into the north entrance at Three Mile Island and drives past the security guards, who are unarmed, and through an open security gate, where he's now breached the outside security zone. From there, he continues on across the bridge on to the island and goes into the parking lot, making several turns, and drives straight through a second security gate that's closed. It offers very little resistance. The bottom of it pivots upwards, allowing his vehicle to pass underneath.
From there, he continues on towards the turbine building. Meanwhile, all the security cameras can't swivel fast enough to keep up with his progress, even though he's only going 35 miles per hour. And he crashes, literally crashes right through a roll-up door on the turbine building and stops 63 feet inside the building. He exits the vehicle, goes down a ladder and descends into the darkened belly of the condenser pits.
Now, understand the situation at this point. We have an intruder loose in a commercial plant that's unlike any other, because it houses more than a thousand times the radiation that's released in a nuclear warhead. If the intruder is armed with explosives or the knowledge of what equipment to disable or destroy, the beginnings of a catastrophic radiological release could be just moments away.
NARRATOR: Four hours later, the intruder, who fortunately was not hostile, was arrested, charged with four felonies, and sent to a psychiatric hospital for observation.
Mr. PORTZLINE: But this simple act by one man, which took less than two minutes, armed with nothing more formidable than his mother's station wagon, exposed more than 40 weaknesses and problems with security right here at Three Mile Island.
NARRATOR: Three weeks later, the World Trade Center in Manhattan was bombed. Eighteen months after that terrorist attack, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission required the installation of vehicle barriers at all nuclear power plants to protect all vital buildings. However, it took another year-and-a-half for the truck bomb rule to go into effect.
Mary Wells is manager of communications at Three Mile Island.
MARY WELLS: We feel confident that with the security measures -- and they were very extensive before the intruder event -- in addition to the increased security we've put in there, that we would be able to defend ourselves against a World Trade Center-type bomb.
Mr. LEVENTHAL: The truck bomb rule is the first time the NRC has formally considered the possibility that attackers would use a vehicle. Previously, they assumed that they would come on foot and would only have the weaponry that they could carry by hand. So, the truck bomb rule is a considerable improvement over that mindset. But now the question is, is the rule adequate to protect against today's threat or, more pertinent, tomorrow's threat?
The NRC truck bomb rule is designed to protect against the World Trade Center bomb. We immediately challenged them after the Oklahoma City bombing and asked whether they were protecting against yesterday's bomb rather than the current threat, and we never got a straight answer from them.
NARRATOR: Whether or not the vehicle barrier is adequate depends not only on the size of the truck bomb and whether or not the invading force is armed, but also on what you're trying to protect. The nuclear industry claims that for public health and safety, only the buildings which house nuclear materials need be protected.
Mary Wells describes how those buildings are designed.
Ms. WELLS: Three Mile Island is designed to withstand an earthquake of 6.5 on the Richter Scale. Now I would think that a plant in California would be rated higher than that, and that is the case. And we are also designed to withstand a hurricane or a tornado with 200-mile an hour winds and a direct hit from an airliner loaded with fuel. So, we're designed to withstand extraordinary attack, whether natural or manmade.
NARRATOR: Others challenge that the entire system must be protected to ensure the safe shutdown of the reactor.
Mr. PORTZLINE: Well, I have thousands of pages of documentation from the NRC, the Sandia National Laboratories, the Los Alamos National Laboratory that counters what they say. There's just thousands of pages that show how a terrorist, using an airplane, even without a bomb, could cause sufficient damage by hitting the turbine building and other buildings where the resultant fires could disable the equipment that is necessary to bring the plant to a safe shutdown.
Mr. LEVENTHAL: You don't need nuclear weapons to wage a nuclear attack against the United States, you just need to get up close enough to a nuclear power plant and do enough damage to it to cause a meltdown.
In case any of your viewers are wondering whether I'm putting out information that's going to be useful to Iran that Iran didn't know about, let me remind them that in 1983, when President Reagan was openly considering using missiles to knock out Silkworm missile batteries that China had sold Iran, the Ayatollah at that point put out a statement saying that population centers and nuclear reactors in the United States are far more vulnerable than missile batteries in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
NARRATOR: The World Trade Center terrorists, who were training just 30 miles away from Three Mile Island, also threatened to assault US nuclear facilities.
Mr. PORTZLINE: Well, nearly three weeks after the TMI intrusion, they bombed the World Trade Center and sent a letter to The New York Times, saying they were going to attack nuclear targets with 150 suicide soldiers.
NARRATOR: But according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, this posed no credible threat to US nuclear power plants.
Mr. PORTZLINE: What do they need, a singing telegram? Because here we had the Trade Center bombers actively making additional bombs in New York City for the multiple targets. The intrusion at Three Mile Island, which exposed the security weaknesses, and the threat to attack nuclear targets with 150 suicide soldiers, and they had the audacity to say there was no credible threat.
Ms. WELLS: The FBI told us in 1993 -- and they haven't changed their opinion of this -- that a nuclear plant is a very hard target. And by that they mean that anyone attempting from outside to attack the plant would have a very difficult time of it and would very likely lose their life.
NARRATOR: While nuclear reactors may not be easy targets, the results of sabotage or bombardment could be catastrophic.
Dr. TAYLOR: Bombing a nuclear power reactor -- and this could be conceivably with conventional explosives, armor-piercing particularly. That would -- could produce fallout downwind on the scale of one pretty good-sized H-bomb. So, it's not on a continental scale, but it could be on a state scale.
NARRATOR: Perhaps more troublesome to Dr. Taylor is the Pantex plant in Amarillo, Texas, where the Department of Energy dismantles nuclear warheads. The materials from the dismantled weapons are stored on-site.
Dr. TAYLOR: We're heading toward tens of tons of plutonium being stored in an area that would be within the crater of a medium-sized nuclear weapon, if that were ever used. That's enough to get it all up into the stratosphere. And that would require the evacuation of areas on the scale of at least several states, if not the whole eastern part of the United States.
The likelihood of that happening is small, but the consequences are enormous.
NARRATOR: Dr. Taylor believes that to avert such a catastrophe nuclear materials should not be stored conveniently near the surface of the earth.
Dr. TAYLOR: Is it rationale to have such concentrations of highly radioactive materials near the surface, where if bombarded, sabotaged, could kill millions and millions of people downwind? Is that sensible? My answer is absolutely not.
NARRATOR: What can be done to stop countries from secretly developing nuclear weapons? How can we prevent the theft of nuclear materials? And what steps should be taken to limit the dangers posed by direct attack on nuclear facilities?
Suggested remedies include increasing the powers of the IAEA, so that inspectors can go anywhere, anytime and use any inspection method they desire -- ...banning the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel ...limiting the transport of nuclear materials ...canceling plans to use MOX fuel ...safe storage deep underground of all nuclear materials ...improving defenses against truck bombs by pushing back the set back distances of vehicle barriers ...and, increasing security for all buildings at nuclear facilities.
But are the benefits gained by nuclear power worth all the risks?
Mr. KAY: Look it's always going to be a bargain with the devil. The potential of proliferation and diversion to military program is inherent in the atom. There is a false belief that you can divide peaceful from military; you really can't. It's the same principles of physics that are there.
The question is, are you willing to run the risk? How severe is the energy crisis? How severe is global warming? Do you need it?
NARRATOR: When Eisenhower made his speech to the United Nations, it was still believed that one day atomic power would be too cheap to meter. That never happened. Today, it costs between 10 and 12 cents per kilowatt hour to generate electricity from a nuclear power plant -- roughly the same as the cost of electricity at a solar thermal plant and nearly twice as much as electricity generated from a wind or coal-powered facility.
Dr. TAYLOR: The sun shines on every country in the world with no exceptions, and the sun could be used to meet all the energy requirements in any country, bar none, from the North Pole to the South Pole, if we really went after it, and we're beginning to. That's the hopeful side of everything.
We don't need nuclear energy produced on Earth. We have nuclear energy produced in the Sun. It's the biggest nuclear reactor that one can imagine that's anywhere near close. And it's sustained human activity for millions -- human activity for millions and millions of years and all biological activity for billions of years. Let's use it.
Admiral SHANAHAN: Nuclear power provides nearly 15 percent of the world's electricity, but it's also the back door through which determined nations could go to acquire nuclear weapons. Nuclear materials at power plants, military facilities, reprocessing plants, and storage sites, or in transit could be stolen and used to make a nuclear bomb. Nuclear facilities, if attacked, could release catastrophic amounts of radiation.
If people decide that the potential risks are worth the benefits, then it is imperative that these materials and facilities be better protected.
For "AMERICA'S DEFENSE MONITOR," I am Jack Shanahan.
NARRATOR: Special funding for this program provided by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.
[End of broadcast.]
CONDITION OF USE: Credit "AMERICA'S DEFENSE MONITOR"
(Center for Defense Information).
(C) Copyright 1997. Center for Defense Information. All Rights Reserved.
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