Nuclear Reactor Security and Nuclear Terrorism: Whither the Design Basis Threat?

It was not so long ago that much hope, especially among the nuclear industry, was invested in a new wave of nuclear reactor construction. So much so that it was often said that we were embarking upon a “nuclear renaissance” or a “second nuclear age.”

In the United States that renaissance has been rather muted, and most of the action, such as it is, has been occurring in the developing world where nuclear power is often wrapped in an aura of modernity.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, which produces fantastic risk analysis on nuclear security matters, reports on an intriguing little development that would be of interest to anyone that has followed the debate on nuclear terrorism since the mid to late 1990s.

Ferguson and Potter, in a key text on nuclear terrorism, have written of what they refer to as “the four forces of nuclear terrorism,” which are (1) terrorists acquiring an intact nuclear warhead (2) terrorists developing an improvised nuclear explosive device (3) terrorists attacking a nuclear reactor (4) a dirty or radiological bomb attack.

What is of interest to us here is (3). One way that utilities are meant to secure their nuclear operations is by possessing the capacity to repeal a determined armed assault on their facilities. To demonstrate this capability, they need to meet what the nuclear regulatory body, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), calls a Design Basis Threat and that to the satisfaction of the NRC.

According to the UCS report linked above

It is true that good nuclear security is expensive. Maintaining a full complement of security officers round the clock—that is, five shifts of a few dozen guards each—costs millions of dollars annually.
Such a guard force is necessary to protect nuclear plants from a “design basis threat” (DBT) attack, the nominal threat defined by the NRC. In 2007, the NRC revised its public definition of the DBT to be “a determined violent external assault, attack by stealth, or deceptive actions, including diversionary actions, by an adversary force” that can act in multiple teams and is composed of “well-trained (including military training and skills) and dedicated individuals, willing to kill or be killed” and assisted by “knowledgeable” insiders acting in an active and/or passive capacity.

This, of course, all costs money. A cost which comes at a time when the renaissance is in ebb tide. The NEI, the Union of Concerned Scientists reports, previously made a gambit for some regulatory capture by having, in effect, nuclear power operators conduct testing exercises themselves.

That was rejected but now the NEI is seeking to have the NRC relax the requirements of the Design Basis Threat in order to cut costs.

The reasoning is worth noting. According to the UCS report,

Industry representatives, not wanting to see nuclear plant security costs go up any further, point to assessments of a changing terrorist landscape. They argue that al Qaeda is greatly diminished, and the Islamic State (IS) poses a far greater threat to the United States through its ability to inspire “lone wolves” to spontaneously engage in terrorist acts without formal direction or financing from the organization. Consequently, they say that there is little danger now of coordinated attacks on such hardened targets as government facilities or nuclear power plants, which would require resources beyond the reach of most lone wolves. Instead, lone wolves will go after soft targets like dance clubs or shopping malls. See, for example, former NRC Commissioner Jeffrey Merrifield’s remarks at a recent NRC briefing. While Merrifield was careful not to explicitly call for reducing nuclear plant security, he complained that the NRC’s policies are leading to an effective “ratcheting” up of security requirements not warranted by changes in the threat environment.

What is noteworthy here is that when you read the risk assessments often made for the other faces of nuclear terror, especially (1) and (2), you get an entirely different picture. Here the terrorists are highly capable, determined, and very organised as opposed to being spontaneous actors interested primarily in conventional attacks. Such assessments are used to support various foreign policy initiatives.

Say the NRC buys the NEI line.

What would we have? When the third face of nuclear terror conflicts with the budget bottom line of industry the threat is minimised, the terrorists are not centralised and capable, but when the first and second faces of nuclear terrorism are invoked to support reasons of state, for the terrorists are centralised and capable, the threat is maximised.

It would seem that we have a bit of a contradiction here. Both positions could well end up being upheld at one and the same time, the NRC of course is a part of the state.

Let P be a sentence which is true or false. Even if P is true P and (notP) is false.

I have long had a number of issues with the literature on nuclear terrorism.