Terrorism involving nuclear weapons or radioactive materials could take a wide variety of forms:

  • Steal, buy or otherwise acquire a ready-made nuclear weapon.
  • Steal, buy or otherwise acquire fissile material which could be fabricated (with difficulty) into a crude nuclear bomb.
  • Make and detonate a radiological weapon, or ‘dirty bomb’, to spread radioactive material.
  • Attack a nuclear reactor or other nuclear facility (e.g. reprocessing plant, spent nuclear fuel store)
  • Disrupt critical inputs for the safe running of a nuclear reactor eg water supply for cooling, electrical power supply systems.
  • Attack or steal nuclear fuel or waste containers, most likely in transit.
  • Disrupt the operation of a nuclear plant with a sophisticated computer virus or worm (e.g. the Stuxnet worm which has disrupted operations at Iran’s uranium enrichment plant and also infected some computers at Iran’s nuclear power plant).

While it is very difficult or impossible to meaningfully assess the likelihood or frequency of terrorist attacks, the potential for catastrophic outcomes is not in dispute. A 12.5 kiloton bomb detonated in New York City is estimated to cause (Helfand et al., 2002):

  • 52,000 immediate deaths;
  • 238,000 people exposed to direct radiation, of which 10,000 would die and 44,000 would suffer acute radiation sickness;
  • 1.5 million people would be exposed to radioactive fallout in the following few days – this could kill an additional 200,000 people.

Reprocessing plants and stores for spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste typically contain enormous quantities of radioactive materials in readily dispersible forms, and are more vulnerable to attacks than reactors as they are generally less well protected. (Hirsch, 2005) Barnaby (2003) states: “It is hard to think of a nuclear terrorist attack which could, at least in theory, be more catastrophic than a successful attack on either the tanks at Sellafield that contain the liquid fission products separated from spent reactor fuel elements by the two reprocessing plants or on the stores holding the plutonium separated by the reprocessing plants.”

The IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Database contains more than 1000 confirmed reports on incidents involving smuggling, theft, loss and illegal disposal, illegal possession and transfer, and attempted illegal sales of nuclear material. Around 800 additional incidents are as yet unconfirmed. Globally, the number of reported incidents of trafficking has been increasing through some combination of increased trafficking and better detection. (<www-ns.iaea.org/security/itdb.htm>)

The IAEA relies on voluntary funding (as opposed to predictable core funding) for 90% of its nuclear security program and 30% of its nuclear safety program (IAEA, 2008). In 2006, then IAEA Director-General Dr Mohamed El Baradei said: “Everybody says nuclear terrorism is the No. 1 national and international security issue. But until they translate this grandstanding statement into dollars and cents, we will not be able to deal effectively with the danger we are facing.” (Dickey, 2006.)

Many of the difficulties faced by would-be nuclear terrorists can be overcome if they have the support of ‘insiders’ − plant employees or contractors. Hirsch et al. (2005) state: “The insider problem is of particular complexity. Generally, at present, qualified personnel for nuclear plants are scarce. Sub-contractors are extensively used. This considerably increases the “chances” for terror organisations to recruit insiders.”

Schneider et al. (2007) discuss the situation in the US: “While there has not been a documented case of sabotage at a nuclear power plant resulting in a radiological release, numerous incidents over the last twenty years have revealed serious security vulnerabilities that could have been exploited in the event of an attack. These vulnerabilities should be considered comparable to vital safety systems that are nonfunctional. … Typically, after events like these, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will take steps to address the vulnerabilities that were exposed. However, even after the revamping of the NRC’s security programs in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, incidents of concern continue to occur, often brought to the attention of the public through whistleblowers, indicating that the systemic problems in security are not being addressed.”

The ‘insider’ problem (among others) is discussed in a US Secretary of State (2010) cable released by Wikileaks:

“Russia is aware that Pakistani authorities, with help from the U.S., have created a well-structured system of security for protecting nuclear facilities, which includes physical protection. However, there are 120,000-130,000 people directly involved in Pakistan’s nuclear and missile programs, working in these facilities and protecting them. However, regardless of the clearance process for these people, there is no way to guarantee that all are 100% loyal and reliable.

“In addition to the Islamist interest in these facilities, Russia also is aware that Pakistan has had to hire people to protect nuclear facilities that have

especially strict religious beliefs, and recently the general educational and cultural levels in Pakistan has been falling.

“Due to these facts, extremist organizations have more opportunities to recruit people working in the nuclear and missile programs. Over the last few years extremists have attacked vehicles that carry staff to and from these facilities. Some were killed and a number were abducted and there has been no trace seen of them. Also, even if places are well protected, transportation of materials is a vulnerable point. In Pakistan, it is hard to guarantee the security of these materials during transportation.”

On transport risks, Hirsch et al. (2005) state:

“During transport, radioactive substances are a potential target for terrorists. Of the numerous materials being shipped, the following are the most important:

1. Spent fuel elements from nuclear power plants and highly active wastes from reprocessing (high specific inventory of radioactive substances)

2. Plutonium from reprocessing (high radiotoxicity, particularly if released as aerosol)

3. Uranium hexafluoride – uranium has to be concerted into this chemical form in order to undergo enrichment (high chemical toxicity of released substances, resulting in immediate health effects in case of release).

“Since the amounts transported with one shipment are about several tonnes at most, the releases to be expected will be smaller by orders of magnitudes than those that result from attack of a storage facility – even if the transport containers are severely damaged. On the other hand, the place where the release occurs cannot be foreseen, as attacks can occur, in principle, everywhere along the transport routes. Those routes often go through urban areas; for example at ports or during rail transport. Thus, releases can take place in densely populated regions, leading to severe damage to many people, even if the area affected is comparatively small.”

Terrorist incidents involving nuclear plants include the following (Hirsch, 2005; Ruff, 2006):

  • On 12 November 1972, three hijackers took control of a DC-9 of Southern Airlines and threatened to crash it on the Oak Ridge military nuclear research reactor. The hijackers flew on to Cuba after they obtained two million dollars.
  • March 1973: guards at a nearly completed nuclear power reactor at Lima, Argentina were overpowered in an attack by 15 armed men.
  • December 1977: Basque separatists set off bombs damaging the reactor vessel and a steam generator and killing two workers at the Lemoniz nuclear power plant under construction in Spain.
  • January 1982: 4 anti-tank rockets were fired at the nearly-completed Superphenix fast breeder reactor at Creys-Malville, France, damaging the containment vessel.
  • December 1982: ANC fighters set off four bombs inside the Koeberg plant under construction in South Africa, despite tight security.
  • May 1986: three of the four off-site power lines leading to the Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona were sabotaged by short-circuiting.
  • February 1993: At Three Mile Island nuclear power plant (Pennsylvania), a man crashed his station wagon through the security gate and rammed the vehicle under a partly opened door in the turbine building. Security guards found him hiding in that building four hours later.
  • In 1993, the terrorists behind the car bombing against the World Trade Centre, belonging to the terrorist networks that claimed to be part of the Islamic jihad, threatened to target nuclear sites in a letter received by the New York Times and authenticated by the authorities.
  • November 1994: Bomb threat at Ignalina nuclear power plant, Lithuania. However, no explosion occurred and no bomb was found in the power plant.

Incidents at ANSTO’s Lucas Heights nuclear site in southern Sydney include the following (Ruff, 2006):

  • 1983: nine sticks of gelignite, 25 kg of ammonium nitrate (usable in explosives), three detonators and an igniter were found in an electrical substation inside the boundary fence. A detonator was set off but did not detonate the main explosives. Two people were charged.
  • 1984: a threat was made to fly an aircraft packed with explosives into the HIFAR reactor; one person was found guilty of public mischief.
  • 1985: after vandalism of a pipe, radioactive liquid drained into Woronora river, and this incident was not reported for 10 days. In 1986 an act of vandalism resulted in damage to the sampling pit on the effluent pipeline.
  • 2000: in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics, New Zealand detectives foiled a plot to attack the reactor by Afghan sympathisers of Osama bin Laden.
  • 9 October 2001: NSW and Federal police conducted a full search following a bomb threat directed at ANSTO.
  • December 2001: Greenpeace activists easily breach security at the front gate and the back fence of Lucas Heights, some activists scale the reactor while another breaches the ‘secure air space’ in a paraglider.
  • October 2003: French terror suspect Willy Brigitte deported from Australia, held on suspicion of terrorism in France; alleged to have been planning to attack the reactor and to have passed on bomb-making skills to two Australians.
  • November 2005: multiple coordinated arrests of terrorist suspects in Sydney and Melbourne. Court documents reveal the Lucas Heights reactor was a potential target. Three of the eight alleged members of the Sydney terror cell had previously been caught near the reactor facility by police in December 2004, each alleged to have given different versions of what they had been doing.
  • November 2005: a reporter and photographer were able to park a one-tonne van for more than half an hour outside the Lucas Heights back gate, protected by a simple padlock able to be cut with bolt-cutters, 800 m from the reactor. The Australian reported: “The back door to one of the nation’s prime terrorist targets is protected by a cheap padlock and a stern warning against trespassing or blocking the driveway.” (Porter, 2005)
  • A man facing terrorism charges in 2007 had purchased five rocket launchers allegedly stolen from the army. According to a witness statement, the accused purchaser said “I am going to blow up the nuclear place”, an apparent reference to Lucas Heights. (Neighbour, 2007; Ferguson, 2007)

Up to 13,000 people could require iodine, and/or be evacuated, to counter the effects of radiation if terrorists destroyed the core of the nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights, according to a NSW Health Department study. (Macey, 2005) Nuclear engineer Tony Wood, former head of ANSTO’s Division of Reactors and Engineering, told a Senate inquiry that the OPAL reactor at Lucas Heights “when operating at full power will contain sufficient fission products to cause great damage off site if a large fraction were to escape.”

The existing reactor, and the proposed new reactor, are not the only risks at Lucas Heights. The isotope processing plant, in which irradiated targets, including enriched uranium targets, are processed, is vulnerable. Another target at Lucas Heights is the spent fuel from the reactor. On April 2, 1996, maritime workers refused to load a shipment of spent fuel from ANSTO because they had not been forewarned of the shipment. The spent fuel was driven aimlessly around Sydney while the dispute was resolved, because of a law preventing the convoy being stationary for more than two hours (presumably for security reasons). (SMH 5/9/98.) During a previous spent fuel shipment was, a spent fuel convoy from Lucas Heights was followed onto a ship by a truck driven by Greenpeace activists.