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What is wrong with security at nuclear reactors?

What is wrong with this picture?

Pilgrim is NOT Secure Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station is not adequately protected and is vulnerable to a catastrophic release of radiation triggered by a terrorist attack.  Threats can come from both outside and inside the nuclear reactor’s property. The goal is to release deadly radiation into the surrounding communities – radiation is the most poisonous and long- lived toxin on earth.

In simple terms, the public is protected from the radioactivity by steel reinforced concrete walls, zircaloy cladding surrounding fuel assemblies, and pools of circulating coolant water. A terrorist or saboteur would try to breach containment, cut the water supply, or cut the electricity to disable operating systems.


  • A spent fuel pool attack at Pilgrim could contaminate approximately 25,000 square miles – an area 3 times the size of Massachusetts. [See: 2009/02/06-Environmental Impacts of Storing Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Waste from Commercial Nuclear Reactors: a Critique of NRC's Waste Confidence Decision and Environmental Impact Determination, NRC Electronic Library, ADAMS Accession Number ML090960723; and Nuclear Spent Fuel & Homeland Security, The Case for Hardened Storage: View 10 minute presentation at ]

  • A core melt at Pilgrim is calculated by the federal government to result in a peak first year fatal radius of 20 miles and a peak first year injury radius of 65 miles and 23,000 cancer deaths. [See: Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences U.S. Nuclear Power Plants (CRAC-2), Sandia National Laboratory, 1982].

  • Worse Than Chernobyl -  new study analyzing health and economic consequences of a terrorist attack by the Union of Concerned Scientists.    More

NRC SECURITY REGULATIONS – INADEQUATE For example: Pilgrim’s security is not responsible for providing protection against “enemies of the state,” (terrorists are enemies of the state); instead that is the responsibility of the federal government. Pilgrim’s security is simply required to delay attackers until outside help arrives from local sheriff departments, state police, or the FBI; however, it is likely that it will take too long for them to arrive. Furthermore, neither the federal government nor local outside help has participated in actual (as opposed to table top) onsite coordinated drills with Pilgrim’s own security.  More

Some Potential Modes of Attack on Civilian Nuclear Facilities 1


Commando-style by land
  • Could involve heavy weapons/sophisticated tactics
  • Attack requiring substantial planning and resources
Alarms, fences, lightly-armed guards, with offsite backup
Commando-style by water

·       Could involve heavy weapons/sophisticated tactics

·       Could target intake canal

·       Attack may be planned to coordinate with a land attack

500 yard no entry zone – marked by buoys – simply, “no trespassing” signs
Periodic Coast Guard surveillance by boat or plane
Land-vehicle bomb
  • Readily obtainable
  • Highly destructive if detonated at target
Vehicle barriers at entry points to Protected Area 
Anti-tank missile
  • Readily obtainable
  • Highly destructive at point of impact 
None if missile is launched from offsite
Commercial aircraft
  • More difficult to obtain than pre-9/11
  • Can destroy larger, softer targets
Explosive-laden smaller aircraft
  • Readily attainable
  • Can destroy smaller, harder targets
10-kilotonne nuclear weapon
  • Difficult to obtain
  • Assured destruction if detonated at target 

Spent Fuel


The “spent fuel” pools at Pilgrim contains many times the radiation released in Chernobyl – and could contaminate an area 3 times the size of Massachusetts.


Pilgrim’s spent fuel is stored in a “swimming pool” inside the main reactor building, outside the concrete containment that is intended to protect the reactor. The pool is in the attic of the building with a thin roof overhead, an especially vulnerable location. 


If the water dropped to the top of the assemblies, the spent fuel would burn in the densely packed pool. If it were to burn, NRC documents show that the fire could not be extinguished - there is 100% likelihood that the entire “inventory” of the spent fuel pool would be released into the atmosphere.[ For the Consequences of a spent fuel pool fire, see Dr. Jan Beyea's Declaration attached to the Pilgrim- Massachusetts Attorney General's Request for a Hearing and Petition for Leave to Intervene with Respect to Entergy Nuclear Operations Inc.'s Application for Renewal of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant Operating Licensee Massachusetts, May 2006 -Adams Accession Number “ML061630088”].

Reactor Core: A nuclear meltdown, exposing the fuel assemblies inside the reactor core, can be accomplished by breaching the primary containment wall. A jet, smaller than that used in the Twin Towers attack, would do. Federal reports state that 1 out of 2 commercial planes flying today could breach these buildings.

Independent Spent Fuel  Storage Installations (ISFSI): An ISFSI poses a radiological risk that is lower than the risk posed by a spent-fuel pool packed at high density. Nevertheless, options are available for reducing the risk associated with malice-induced accidents at an ISFSI. NRC refuses to consider these options in an EIS. Also, NRC attempts to hide the vulnerabilities of existing ISFSIs under a veil of secrecy.

Disabling necessary support systems: Nuclear plant owners would like us to now believe their facilities are hardened structures virtually immune to attack from the air. But what the nuclear industry asserts as confidence appears more like a confidence game. The thick, reinforced walls do not surround all vital parts of a nuclear power plant—as the industry knows very well. For example the control buildings at every nuclear plant in the United States are located outside the robust structures described by the industry. Thus, the nuclear industry’s proclamations about the robustness of thick, reinforced walls may be accurate, but they fail to tell the entire story.Alternatively, a nuclear meltdown could occur by disabling key secondary support: such as cutting off electrical power to a plant/spent fuel pool and disabling the backup generators; clogging or cutting off the main water supply to the plant/spent fuel pool; and gaining control to the control room. Cyber attacks are a very real and recent concern.



Air: Since September 11, 2001, a “no- fly” zone was put into effect for a short period, and was then eliminated. Because of the proximity of Boston and other airports, a “no fly” zone can not be large enough to permit effective response by Air Force or National Guard fighter aircraft. Even at the relatively slow speed of 300 miles per hour, a ten-mile “no fly” zone would provide only 2 minutes advance warning. We understand that the time for the nearest interceptor jets on “high alert” simply to be airborne is approximately ten minutes and travel time to Plymouth longer. Flights between secondary airports do not even screen passengers. Hyannis, for example, is a five minute flight from Pilgrim and there is no separation between the cabin and cockpit. To address this, the following strategies have been suggested:  a combination of on-site missiles and a no-fly zone; requiring a Beamhedge Shield [see Committee to Bridge the Gap for a video and discussion about the concept]; or at the very least reduce the vulnerability of the spent fuel pool by returning the pool to low density and placing the majority of the assemblies in secured and dispersed dry casks.  More

Sea: There is a 500yard “exclusion zone”, marked by buoys or floating “no-trespassing” signs, is not impenetrable, and is not patrolled most of the time. There is no capability of immediate armed response. There is not a screen across the in-take canal to block a submerged explosive- simply a boom. More

Land: Outside responders can offer little help. On site security personnel are under-manned, under-trained, under-equipped, under-paid and unsure of what they can do according to the workers, themselves.  More

We understand that on-site security tests are not credible
because there is too much advance notice; the tests set a low bar to hurdle by using a low passing grade; the tests are performed during operating hours when the number of workers on site are minimal; tests limit the insider role to that of a passive participant; tests have only involved attack from one direction and one team of attackers; tests require defense against only a small number of attackers; tests do not assess the reactor’s ability to defend the spent fuel pool or defend against an attack using aircraft or boats; if a licensee performs poorly there are not enforcement actions; no independent observers or input. 




Order the transfer of all but the recently unloaded spent fuel rods from the spent fuel pool (that requires human intervention, electricity and other features) to a secured dry cask system (a passive design, with no mechanical components). This technology significantly increases the security of waste materials.

List of resources, latest research, available.  More


1. The decision as to how much security is required will be independent of the licensee’s desires to save money.

2. The Federal Government can provide types of securities that the industry or local/state government cannot.


Union of Concerned Scientists   Multiple articles on security on their site.

Committee to Bridge the Gap:

C-10 Research and Education Foundation:         

Nuclear Spent Fuel & Homeland Security, The Case for Hardened Storage:View 10 minute presentation

Institute for Resource and Security Studies:

Nuclear Control Institute Independent research and advocacy center specializing in problems of nuclear security.

Project on Government Oversight Government Watch dogs; detailed research on status security and federal oversight.

Program in Science and Global Security, Princeton University Studies spent fuel hazards

NC Warn  A nonprofit group in North Carolina; very valuable site on security and waste storage issues

Congressman Edward Markey 


"Nuclear Unsecured: America's Vulnerable Nuclear Plants", Public Citizen, Nov/Dec 2004

GAO Report (GAO-03-752), "Oversight of Security at Commercial Nuclear Power Plants Needs to be Strengthened," September 2003

Are These Towers Safe? Time Magazine, June 20, 2005 - read this article

POGO’s presentation to the National Academy of Sciences on the “Vulnerability of Spent Fuel Pools" -
read this report

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1. Gordon Thompson, Robust Storage of Spent Nuclear Fuel: A Neglected Issue of Homeland Security, p. E-S 5, December 2002.
NOTE: Pilgrim Watch added 2nd row to table, ATTACK BY WATER.