Over a decade after the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. nuclear facilities remain vulnerable to a similar-scale terrorist attack that could be "orders of magnitude greater" than the Fukushima nuclear disaster in terms of human and economic destruction, according to a new report released Thursday by the University of Texas Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project.
"More than 10 years have come and gone since the events of September 2001, and America’s civilian nuclear facilities remain unprotected against a terrorist attack of that scale," report co-author Professor Alan J. Kuperman said.
"Instead, our civilian reactors prepare only against a much smaller-scale attack, known as the ‘design basis threat,’ while the government fails to provide supplementary protection against a realistic 9/11-type attack. It would be a tragedy if the United States had to look back after such an attack on a nuclear reactor and say that we could have and should have done more to prevent the catastrophe," he added.
The report found that three civilian research reactors that have security weaknesses contain weapons-grade uranium—including one reactor just miles from the U.S. Capitol.
While Pentagon and Department of Energy nuclear facilities are protected against a 9/11-scale attack, the report determined that none of the country’s 104 commercial nuclear power reactors has adequate defenses. It also found that new facilities are required to protect against air attacks, but older ones are not.
Additionally, numerous U.S. nuclear facilities accessible by sea—including ones in New York, California, and Florida—do not have safeguards against ship-borne attacks, according to the study.
"These nuclear reactors are naked against a maximum credible terrorist attack," Kuperman said in a conference call with reporters on Thursday. "And we know that sort of attack could induce a meltdown. We’re talking something like Fukushima."
The U.S. government has upgraded its protections of nuclear facilities since the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to researchers, but the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been unable to provide nuclear facilities with adequate security, and the U.S. government has not stepped in to address these vulnerabilities.
"We commend the upgrades, but our concern is that they’re not enough," said Kuperman.
"It’s the responsibility of the U.S. government to come in and fill that gap," he added. "And the problem is that isn’t occurring."