Fukushima Meltdown Could Be A Template For Nuclear Terrorism
On US Soil
Given the revolutions of past and present, class warfare
and the scheming of those seeking power, the human race has
shown a remarkable resilience and has managed to survive
thus far. The new factors in the equation of the balance of
mankind and the rest of nature are the technological
advances that have changed how political and social chaos
can develop and the advances in industry that have the
potential to inflict serious environmental consequences.
Threats of nuclear war and biological catastrophe now bring
into question how humanity should best guard its future.
In this regard, the question is not if, but when a
nuclear terrorist attack will happen on US soil. How can we
forestall these likely events?
A part of the answer can be found in al Qaeda’s media
arm, As-Sahab, a video released earlier this month. The
first 36 minutes of the video essentially are a history
lesson of militants who heard the call to jihad and then
acted on it. Among the examples are individuals such as
ElSayyid Nosair, the assassin of Jewish Defense League
founder Meir Kahane; Abdel Basit (also known as Ramzi Yousef),
the operational planner of the 1993 World Trade Center
attack and the thwarted Bojinka plot; Mohammed Bouyeri, the
assassin of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh; and Fort Hood
shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. Others include the leader of the
team of assassins who killed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat
and the militants behind the Mumbai attacks.
Then, after listing those examples, the video emphasizes
the point that if one is to live in the “real Islamic way,”
one must also follow the examples of the men profiled.
Furthermore, since the “enemies of Islam” have expanded
their “attacks against Islam” in many different places, the
video asserts that it is not only in the land of the Muslims
that the enemies of Islam must be attacked, but also in
their homelands (i.e., the West).
In fact, the video asserts that it is easy to strike the
enemies of Islam in their home countries and doing so
creates the biggest impact. And this is the context in which
Gadahn made his widely publicized comment about Muslims
buying guns and conducting armed assaults.
While most of the western intelligence and military
agencies are focusing their budgets and energy on combating
the traffic of nuclear material, it also confirms that
Fukushima demonstrated an acute vulnerability that could be
exploited at active US reactor sites.
According to US intelligence reports, after 9/11,
terrorist organizations operatives were reported to have
conducted reconnaissance of US nuclear reactor facilities.
Additionally, we all remember the more recent cyber attacks
and espionage incidents on the International Monetary Fund
(“IMF”), Lockheed Martin, Sony and, ultimately, the Iranian
nuclear facilities. We may never know for sure if the
Stuxnet worm implanted in the Iranian reactors was written
by an entity friendly or hostile to the US, but we do know
that it was effective and that it made it clear that attacks
in cyberspace have effects in the real world.
The Fukushima meltdown showed how current nuclear plants
are vulnerable to cooling-system failures. This might be of
interest to Al Qaeda as a strategy of attacking plants in US
(don’t worry, this is not a national secret- both sides are
well aware of the unthinkable potential). Pools of
circulating water that cool spent fuel could be an
attractive target for terrorists. Cooling systems that
circulate water around a sun-like core are also highly
vulnerable. At the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the spent-fuel
pool belonging to its No. 4 reactor lost power to its
cooling system, resulting in the water boiling off and a
spent-fuel fire that released radiation directly into the
At least 28 reactors in the US have designs similar to
the Fukushima plant, where water-cooled spent-fuel pools are
sheltered only by a containment building and not surrounded
by a containment vessel. Such pools, when loaded with spent
fuel, are safe as long as their cooling systems are working.
But US spent-fuel pools tend to be far more heavily
loaded than those in Japan. Today, some 65,000 metric tons
of spent fuel is stored at reactor sites around the country
and 75 percent of it in US spent-fuel pools, according to
data from the Nuclear Energy Institute (as cited in a recent
report by the non-partisan Institute for Policy Studies).
Some 30 million such rods are stored in spent-fuel pools
at 51 sites around the country that contain some of the
largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet.
The rods are usually kept in tightly packed racks
submerged in pool water, which requires a steady flow of
electricity to keep water circulating and the rods from
overheating. If water drains from a spent-fuel pool, it can
lead to a catastrophic fire that emits dangerous radioactive
elements such as Cesium 137. Even so, the US does not
mandate backup power for cooling systems to the pools as
nuclear power watchdogs have noted in several recent
The Fukushima disaster’s dramatic demonstration of how
nuclear plants are vulnerable to cooling-system failure
could “awaken terrorist interest” in attacking such plants.
Following the same concept of the Stuxnet virus,
terrorists will most likely try to damage a reactor’s
support and water-supply systems, as well as its control and
protection system, to cause a heat explosion of the reactor
with subsequent demolition of the reactor and the building
in which it is located.
According to experts in system vulnerability, the major
cyber-threats are coming through both internal and external
communication channels. The internal channel can be
comprised of disgruntled employees with remote access
seeking revenge or perhaps staff who recklessly shares
access data with political activists or criminals. Many
attacks are now arriving via external channels such as the
Here is the threat – specialized IT equipment that is
mated to control equipment at point of manufacture –
compressors, cooling units, remote control valves, electric
generators – are being pinged by hackers and, in some cases,
tampered with. Foreign or domestic terrorists can employ the
same knowledge as hackers and, as we saw with the Russian
cyber-assault on Estonia, an entire country can live in
misery for weeks before the intruders are diagnosed and
Just imagine a nuclear power plant that has suffered a
cyber-attack and the controls of its cooling systems are
being operated remotely by terrorists thousands of miles
away. Imagine a plant that has been attacked by a virus and
the cooling controls have been pre-programmed to cease
cooling at a specific time. In these cases, just “pulling
the plug” and turning off electrical service makes the
Many countries around the world are re-evaluating the
security of their nuclear facilities. Some countries may
conclude that the facilities are secure but the systematic
access is not. How many countries may conclude that the risk
is just too great? How many countries are making choices
Now add to this the possibility of highly sensitive yet
carelessly protected information becoming available to our
enemies? Names, titles and personal family records of
nuclear facility employees…designated escape routes for
evacuation areas…control of utilities outside of the nuclear
facility…every frail access point is being tested and poked
and prodded by people who mean us harm on a daily basis.
The only way to deal with these types of threats at home
is to acknowledge the risk and to redirect a part of the
budget allocated to the war on terror to this mission. A
coordinated attack on our nuclear power plants would require
sophistication yet very little cost making it a nearly
perfect terrorist target.
Too often there are more barbarians at the gate than there