Our hearts go out to fellow New England families in Newtown whose hearts and lives have been rent by thoughtless violence.  It is unconscionable and heartbreaking.  You are in our prayers tonight.

This post has been in the works for a while.  The truth is that we should be scared of terrorists with just about any medium more than nuclear fuel.  On average over 10,000 Americans a year are killed with guns.  Planes in the hands of terrorists killed thousands on 9/11.  Explosives kill.  A systematic attack on our computers could cause untold economic damage.  A worst nightmare scenario would be chemical weapons... or biological weapons.

The worst case of a "dirty bomb" has been studied by the Department of Energy (where no one evacuates, there is no cleanup, and all stay in the area for a full year) and shown that it would not have lethal outcomes other than from the explosive itself... in other words, not a single person would be expected to die from the radiation dose.

The only significant implication of a dirty bomb versus a regular explosive device is simply the fear that people have of radiation.  The fear may cause problems on its own, for instance, anecdotal evidence from a journalist who spent his carer studying Chernobyl suggested that people who refused to evacuate Chernobyl were significantly happier and outlived the evacuees by at least a decade.  Likewise, in Fukushima, studies have suggested that over 700 have been killed by hasty evacuations, while none have been killed (nor are expected to be killed) from radiation.  In this sense, we truly have nothing to fear but fear itself.

Not only this, many people may not realize, but unused nuclear fuel is completely safe to hold in your hands.  As it is used and immediately after, it is almost too dangerous to even steal-- a person would get a lethal dose within minutes and the heat it produces means it can't be held or even transported without cooling.

Ignoring the relative impotence of a dirty bomb in the first place, what if someone just wanted to cause problems at a nuclear plant?  They would have to penetrate one of the most protected areas in the world.  An example of the security they face:
  • First, they would have to enter the controlled grounds of the nuclear plant.  If by road, they would have to pass a guard station.  Otherwise, there are barbed wire fences.
  • After parking, there is another set of fences, in fact there are at least double layers of fences, including both barbed wire as well as concrete walls, guarded by another checkpoint, including airport-like scanning of you and belongings.
  • Inside the property, there are armed guards with automatics which patrol the grounds and man the surveillance turrets.  These guards are often former special-ops soldiers, and are trained regularly with "force on force drills"-- practically a war of an armed force attempting to attack the facility.  Even with the most knowledgeable counter-terrorism experts in America orchestrating the attacks, the guards succeed almost every time.  You don't want to mess with these guys.
  • If you want to enter secure areas of the facility, there is another barrier with another set of security personnel.
  • The reactor itself is within at least a three foot thick concrete structure reinforced by steel.  Spent fuel is also stored in reinforced concrete protected area, often below ground.  These concrete structures are some of the strongest structures ever made by man.  In fact, at Sandia Laboratory, they crashed an F-4 jet on a rocket sled into the concrete at 500 mph.  The plane disintegrates, while the concrete stands.  Watch the video at above.
  • Finally, as mentioned above, the fuel is almost its own protection.  It is extremely difficult to transport, it is unsafe to transport, and it produces a lot of heat, especially if removed from cooling.
The security is overkill in relation to the danger, which may reinforce to people that it is more dangerous than it is.  However, this is because people have a fear of things to do with radiation in disproportion to the danger.  (well, at least the types of radiation we have been taught to fear.  We don't fear bananas which contain radioactive potassium.  We don't fear riding in planes, at least not because of the increased radiation dose.  We don't fear microwaves, cell phones, or sunshine.)  Nonproliferation is not the problem as we make it out to be... it is a red herring.  The real dangers are the ones we can't prepare for so easily as making a utility construct a third wall behind the second wall.

Note: previously we had mistakenly listed a link to a NAS report on Chernobyl which did not exist.  It has been removed.


  1. Good article, but I must make one small bit of contention - you write, "Nonproliferation is not the problem as we make it out to be... it is a red herring." The context you are referring to - i.e., the security of spent fuel assemblies against a non-state actor - doesn't really seem to fall so much under the category of "proliferation" as it does physical security, (i.e., as the risk being evaluated here is in the security of spent fuel assemblies against theft or attack by a non-state adversary).

    The reason I point this out is because non-proliferation is a separate issue which usually gets hashed out on the level of national fuel cycle decisions (e.g., to reprocess or not) and more typically pertains to the potential diversion of material to a weapons program by the host state.

    Both issues are important, but I think it's important to use terms consistently to avoid confusing the two debates.

  2. The fear may cause problems on its own, for instance, a National Academy of Sciences report found that people who refused to evacuate Chernobyl were happier and outlived the evacuees by 20 years, while the evacuees themselves were depressed and suicidal. In this sense, we truly have nothing to fear but fear itself.

    Folks: there is no such report. The link to Rod Adams contains an article referring to anecdotal evidence concerning chernobylites who did not evacuate-- not an NAS report. I notified Rod Adams of this problem.

    1. Greg, thank you. And the link has been removed.

  3. You may have been thinking of these results from the UN's Chernobyl Forum:

    Poverty, “lifestyle” diseases now rampant in the former Soviet Union and mental health problems pose a far greater threat to local communities than does radiation exposure.

    Relocation proved a “deeply traumatic experience” for some 350,000 people moved out of the affected areas. Although 116 000 were moved from the most heavily impacted area immediately after the accident, later relocations did little to reduce radiation exposure.

    Persistent myths and misperceptions about the threat of radiation have resulted in “paralyzing fatalism” among residents of affected areas.


  4. Very helpful post. Thank you.

    I went to a talk at Dartmouth on a related subject. "What If Vermont Yankee Had an Accident Like Fukushima?" Professor Swartz concluded that the "worried well" would be the real problem after an accident. After such an accident, independent scientists would have heavy responsibilities for explaining the risks, because most people would not believe official reassurances.


  5. Nice article. My only point is the security you mention is a united states reply to 9/11. We are the most secure nuclear plants in the world. Unfortunately the same con not be said of all other countries,France comes to mind. Keep up the good work and GO NUCLEAR !


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