Following the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011, 400,000 people were evacuated from their homes near the stricken power plant. Officials scrambled to get a handle on the scale of the radiation exposure and, ultimately, after several waves of evacuation orders, declared 310 square miles of land near the plant a permanent exclusion zone. How long this area will be off limits to human habitation is unclear. A similar area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power facility in Ukraine is expected to be in existence for the next 300 years.
Today, at least 120,000 evacuated from areas near Fukushima still live in temporary shelters. Entire towns sit vacant inside the permanent exclusion zone. Massive cleanup efforts involving the removal of contaminated topsoil and debris are underway. The economic loss from the catastrophe is estimated at $250 billion.
At the Fukushima nuclear plant itself, frantic efforts to control ongoing releases of radiation continue. Robots used to work inside the ruined nuclear reactors regularly cease functioning. The radiation is so intense it kills machines as well. Efforts are still being made to locate the nuclear fuel from the reactors, which melted completely through containment during the disaster and disappeared into the earth.
This is what the aftermath of a nuclear meltdown looks like: terrifying devastation.
What is just as terrifying is how easy it would be for terrorists to replicate such a nightmare.
An earthquake and a subsequent tsunami hit Fukushima. But neither of those events led directly to the meltdown. Two simple factors caused the event: an interruption of power to the plant and the failure of backup generators.
When the first tremors struck Fukushima, the automatic mechanisms at the nuclear power plants went into action, triggered a reactor shutdown and disconnected the plant from the electric grid. Those devices worked flawlessly, and all of the plant’s reactors went into shutdown mode as they were designed to do.
Nuclear power plants generate immense heat, however. That heat must be dissipated or a catastrophic meltdown of the nuclear fuel will ensue. In a plant like Fukushima, even after shutdown, pumps must continue to circulate coolant water. Power to run those pumps – as with most nuclear power plants – came from huge diesel generators.
The generators failed. From that point on, it was simple physics. A meltdown was inevitable.
There are 23 nuclear reactors of the same design as Fukushima operating in the United States. Many, many others, while not identical, have similar weaknesses.
The implications of Fukushima for nuclear terrorism should be obvious. All claims about robust containment vessels around reactors or the difficulty of gaining access to nuclear plant control rooms are meaningless. A terrorist group seeking to cause a catastrophic meltdown has to do just two things: force the plant to shut down and interrupt back-up power. Neither of these actions requires an attacking terrorist group to gain access to any hardened portions of a plant.
Neither needs a terrorist group to seize and hold a plant. Once a plant is offline and backup power is disabled, all any responding security force is going to be able to do is neutralize the terroristattackers and begin issuing evacuation orders.
In any circumstances, these facts should give us pause, particularly in the current terrorism environment. The country has worried for years about terrorist groups striking nuclear power plants – ever since the country learned Al Qaeda considered a nuclear power plant for the 9/11 attacks and had nuclear terrorism aspirations. With the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), those aspirations have given way to concrete preparation and efforts.
Earlier this year in Belgium, a succession of incidents adequately demonstrated ISIS’ efforts to attack nuclear power plants. A worker at the Doel Nuclear Power Station in Belgium was killed and his identification badge stolen. Two members of ISIS were found to be previous employees at the plant. ISIS surveillance of the head of Belgium’s nuclear power program was exposed amid concerns of a plan to kidnap the official and force him to provide access to sensitive areas and materials.
Follow-on investigations determined the brother-in-law of a known ISIS member was considered for a supervisory position at a Belgian nuclear plant. In the midst of all this, the Belgians became so concerned they confiscated access badges from 11 nuclear power plant workers and evacuated all nonessential personnel from both nuclear power plants operating on their soil.
Senior Contributing Editor Charles Faddis served more than 20 years in the CIA as a Clandestine Services operations officer and led the first CIA team into Iraq nine months before the post-9/11 2003 invasion. After serving in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe, Faddis retired in 2008 as head of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center’s Weapons of Mass Destruction unit charged with pursuing terrorists WMD programs around the globe.