National Academies Press: OpenBook
Suggested Citation:"2.2.1 Air Attacks." National Research Council. 2006. Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11263.

Given the experience of September 11, 2001, and the attacks that have occurred in other parts of the world, it is clear to the committee that the ability of the most capable terrorists to carry out attacks is limited only by their access to technical means. It is probably not limited by the ability of terrorist organizations to recruit or train attackers or bring them and any needed equipment into the United States—if indeed they are not already here. Moreover, the demonstrated willingness of terrorists to carry out suicide attacks greatly expands the scenarios that need to be considered when analyzing potential threats.

As is discussed in some detail in Chapters 3 and 4, the facilities used to store spent fuel at nuclear power plants are very robust. Thus, only attacks that involve the application of large energy impulses or that allow terrorists to gain interior access have any chance of releasing substantial quantities of radioactive material. This further restricts the scenarios that need to be considered. For example, attacks using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) of the type that have been carried out in Iraq against U.S. and coalition forces would not likely be successful if the intent of the attack is to cause substantial damage to the facility. Of course, such an attack would get the public’s attention and might even have economic consequences for the attacked plant and possibly the entire commercial nuclear power industry.

The threat scenarios summarized in this chapter are based on documents provided to the committee, briefings received at committee meetings, and the committee’s own expert judgment.8 Further overview and information on nuclear and radiological threats in general can be found in the NRC (2002) report and references therein.

2.2.1 Air Attacks

The September 11, 2001, attacks9 demonstrated that terrorists are capable of successfully attacking fixed infrastructure with large civilian jetliners. The security of civilian passenger airliners has been improved since these attacks were carried out, and the vulnerability of civilian passenger aircraft to highjacking has been reduced. Nevertheless, the committee judges, based on the evidence made available to it during this study, that attacks with civilian aircraft remain a credible threat. Such aircraft are used routinely in freight and charter services, and large numbers of such aircraft enter the United States from other countries each day. Improvements to ground security or cargo inspection would likely not eliminate the threat posed by an air crew willing to stage a suicide attack with a chartered air freighter.

Although the September 11, 2001, attacks utilized Boeing 757 and 767 airliners, larger aircraft (Boeing 747, 777; Airbus 340) are in routine use around the world, and an even larger aircraft (Airbus 380) is entering production. Assaults by such large aircraft could impart enormous energy impulses to spent fuel storage facilities. Additionally, attacks with


The committee found limited information in the open literature on various scenarios for terrorist attacks on nuclear plants and their spent fuel storage facilities.


The al-Qaida terrorist organization hijacked and crashed two Boeing 767 airliners into Towers 1 and 2 of the World Trade Center building in New York and a Boeing 757 airliner into the Pentagon building in Arlington, Virginia. A second Boeing 757, which was believed to be targeted either on the White House or the U.S. Capitol (see National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, Staff Statement No, 16 [Outline of the 9/11 Plot], pages 18–19) crashed in an open field near Jennerstown, Pennsylvania.

Suggested Citation:"2.2.1 Air Attacks." National Research Council. 2006. Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage: Public Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/11263.
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In response to a request from Congress, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Department of Homeland Security sponsored a National Academies study to assess the safety and security risks of spent nuclear fuel stored in cooling pools and dry casks at commercial nuclear power plants. The information provided in this book examines the risks of terrorist attacks using these materials for a radiological dispersal device. Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel is an unclassified public summary of a more detailed classified book. The book finds that successful terrorist attacks on spent fuel pools, though difficult, are possible. A propagating fire in a pool could release large amounts of radioactive material, but rearranging spent fuel in the pool during storage and providing emergency water spray systems would reduce the likelihood of a propagating fire even under severe damage conditions. The book suggests that additional studies are needed to better understand these risks. Although dry casks have advantages over cooling pools, pools are necessary at all operating nuclear power plants to store at least the recently discharged fuel. The book explains it would be difficult for terrorists to steal enough spent fuel to construct a significant radiological dispersal device.


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