More than a decade removed from the 9/11 attacks, all 107 nuclear reactors in the U.S. are vulnerable to acts of terrorism, according to a new report from the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project at the University of Texas—Austin.
The report states that the combined private and public security operations at facilities licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would not be able to defend against a "maximum, credible, non-state adversary."
Nuclear reactors are not required to defend against numerous types of attacks because they are deemed to be beyond the "design-basis threat," which draws a line between small-scale and large-scale attacks.
Threats that meet the design-basis threat involve multiple groups attacking from multiple entry points, the willingness to kill or be killed, knowledge about target selection and a broad range of weapons and equipment, including ground and water vehicles, according to the report.
Airborne attacks, for instance, are excluded "because the weaponry needed to defend against such a threat, surface-to-air missiles or fighter aircraft, cannot be possessed by the private security forces that protect commercial nuclear plants."
The NRC finds the government responsible for protecting nuclear reactors from such attacks.
"Less than two dozen miles from the White House and Capitol Hill, a nuclear reactor contains bomb-grade uranium, but it is not required to protect against even the lesser 'design basis threat' of terrorism," said Alan Kuperman, report co-author and coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, in a news release.
That facility, located in Gaithersburg, Md., along with two other civilian reactors at the University of Missouri—Columbia and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are supposed to convert to non-weapons-grade, low-enriched uranium fuel, but will continue to be fueled by bomb-grade uranium for the next decade, according to the report.
"We know where the weak spots are when it comes to nuclear facilities, so it would be at the height of irresponsibility to fail to take action now," Kuperman said.
Coastal nuclear facilities in at least eight states are vulnerable to nautical attacks but are not required to protect against them because the NRC deems airborne and seaborne attacks beyond the design-basis threat.
The 9/11 Commission Report suggests that al-Qaida considered flying a commercial airline into a nuclear reactor in the New York City metropolitan area. They rejected the idea because they mistakenly believed that the airspace surrounding such a facility was restricted and any aircraft would be shot down before impact.
The report states that although there have not been any recent major acts of terrorism on nuclear facilities, there have been reported attempts to blow up reactors in Argentina, Russia, Lithuania, Western Europe, South Africa and South Korea.