Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, whose 2011 meltdowns dislocated 160,000 people, may provide a new blueprint for terrorists seeking to inflict mass disruption, security analysts said at a United Nations meeting.
The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency convened a weeklong meeting of 1,300 diplomats, scientists and security analysts today in Vienna to examine ways to boost protection against nuclear terrorism. It is the IAEA’s first ministerial conference on nuclear security.
“Fukushima sent a message to terrorists that if you manage to cause a nuclear power plant to melt down, that really causes major panic and disruption in a society,” Matthew Bunn, a Harvard University professor and former White House adviser, said at a briefing. “All you need to do to do that is cut off the power for an extended period of time.”
World leaders have pledged to secure the world’s loose nuclear material by 2014 to reduce the likelihood of an atomic attack by terrorists. While national nuclear facilities endeavor to track the millions of pounds of uranium and plutonium that are unaccounted for, some focus has shifted to the threat posed by power plants.
Fukushima “has provided a number of findings and lessons that are also useful for preparations for an incident caused by human hand, such as a terrorist attack at a nuclear power station,” said Shunichi Suzuki, Japan’s envoy to the meeting.
Japan’s Atomic Energy Agency will present steps it’s taken to boost security against terrorism tomorrow in Vienna. Most of the IAEA conference is taking place behind closed doors.
“Fukushima is a nuclear security problem as much as it was a nuclear safety problem,” Kenneth Luongo, who with the U.S. Department of Energy helped secure atomic material in Russia after the Soviet Union disintegrated, said at a briefing.
The IAEA has projected nuclear power is set to expand worldwide even after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns and radiation leaks at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima plant.
A nuclear-armed terrorist attack on the port in San Jose, California, would kill 60,000 people and cost as much as $1 trillion in damage and cleanup, according to a 2006 Rand study commissioned by the U.S Department of Homeland Security.
Even a low-level radiological or dirty-bomb attack on Washington, while causing a limited number of deaths, would lead to damages of $100 billion, according to Igor Khripunov, the former Soviet arms-control envoy to the U.S, who’s now at the Athens, Georgia-based Center for International Trade and Security.
Because a terrorist needs only about 25 kilograms (55 pounds) of highly-enriched uranium or 8 kilograms of plutonium to improvise a bomb, the margin of error for material accounting is small. There are at least 2 million kilograms of stockpiled weapons-grade nuclear material left over from decommissioned bombs and atomic-fuel plants, according to the most recent estimates by the International Panel on Fissile Materials, a nonprofit Princeton, New Jersey, research institute that tracks nuclear material.
That’s enough to make at least 100,000 new nuclear weapons on top of the 20,000 bombs already in state stockpiles.
“The threat of nuclear terrorism is real and serious, and it will endure for the foreseeable future,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Moniz Ernest said today in prepared remarks.