Nuclear power and dirty bombs

I was having a debate with my friend about nuclear power. I think it could be a good option, but he is worried about terrorists stealing materials to make dirty bombs. How likely is it for terrorists to even get inside the plant? I have done some work for an electric company, and when I entered a powerplant or substation, they checked my ID and searched me, just like when you go to the airport or courthouse. This company didn’t have any nuclear plants, but they still had very advanced security on their facilities. I imagine nuclear security would go even farther.
Also, aren’t dirty bombs just a dramatic scare tactic? I have read articles about them. The real danger from a dirty bomb isn’t the radiation, it’s the bomb made of TNT. The radiation gets spread over too large an area to cause real harm.

We’ve had nuclear power plants for more than 50 years, and there’s been no shortage of terrorists in the world during that time, including in countries with nuclear power. How many dirty-bomb plans have come to fruition? Or gotten anywhere near it?

Even in the chaos of the post-Soviet satellite states, they managed to keep a pretty good lid on things nuclear.

You’re also correct that the actual threat of dirty bombs is not as bad as is generally assumed. Not that you would want a dirty bomb in your neighborhood, but it wouldn’t be the end of civilization.

What’s usually discussed with relation to dirty bombs is cobalt 60, rather than any fissile material. Co 60 is used in a number of commercial applications, such as sterilizing things and radiation therapy. They don’t need to break security at a nuclear plant to get their hands on it.

Yes, the biggest danger of a dirty bomb is mostly the panic it would cause (and the bomb part of the dirty bomb). And if you could get hold of a “decent” amount of radioactive material and pick a good target area you could probably make your “enemy” have one hell of an expensive clean up bill.

But that is for the amount of material your run of the mill terrorist would likely be able to get hold of.

Now if you imagine some James Bond movie type scenario where somehow somewhere someone gets a big assed truck load (thats imperial units) of high level nuclear waste and makes a dirty bomb, then you probably could actually kill a bunch of people with radioactive crap spread everywhere AND make a REALLY expensive clean up bill for someone.

Oh, part of the reason I mentioned a James Bond movie type scenario.

That high level nuclear waste is a bitch to handle. Either you need some Goldfinger like operation to get bunch of it and or you need disposable people to pick it up and transport it. It is some nasty shit up close and unshielded. Not you’ll get cancer eventually bad. You’ll die in hours bad.

So, large quantities of the really nasty stuff is kinda self protecting so to speak.

After 9/11 I remember reading several accounts that stated that Al-Qaeda originally considered crashing the planes into nuclear power plants, but were concerned whether it would be effective and even worried it could get out of control.

Would certainly be a mess, but I doubt that the containment building built around all Western nuclear reactors would have been breached by that.

It is far, far more likely - and more dangerous - that terrorists would get their hands on radioisotopes used for medical purposes. There have already been cases of people being injured by these materials being misplaced and ending up in normal uncontrolled scrap. They’re a lot less tightly controlled than material from nuclear power plants. Strangely enough, despite this I don’t know of any cases of anyone deliberately using them to make a dirty bomb.

It is surprising that no one has attempted this so far. You don’t need an effective dirty bomb, you just need one that sets off detectors and starts a panic. It may be that the fear of retaliation is just too great.

I’m not sure how the Sandia F-4 rocket sled test correlates to your inquiry, but after watching it, and learning that the impact moved the blocks back, IIRC, about an inch, I too doubt that an airplane, even one with the mass of a loaded 767, is getting through.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, FWIW, seems to agree with me. Though, what else would you expect an industry group to say? Another report where, soon after 9/11, they look at an airliner hitting a containment building, and they conclude that,

One of the worst radiological incidents occurred when thieves broke into an abandoned hospital site in the Brazilian state of Goiás. They stole and broke open a cesium-137 source used for radiation therapy. Fascinated by the glowing blue powder inside, they passed it among friends and family to play with. Four died, 20 came down with radiation sickness, 250 were found to be contaminated, 130,000 were tested. The most severely contaminated fatality, a six year old girl, was buried in a lead-lined coffin. There were riots before she was buried, for fear that her body would contaminate the surrounding land.

It’s another example of people having a hard time comparing risks; it’s hard enough to get dangerous amounts of fertilizer, let alone radioactive material.

I can’t give specific details, but I work for a utility with nuclear plants (though in the transmission department, not energy supply), and I can confirm that, while the coal and natural gas plants are secured, it’s nothing compared to the level of security at the nukes. It would not be worthwhile to try to steal nuclear material from a power plant instead of a hospital or somewhere like that.

One of the problems with making a “dirty” bomb is that in order for the radioactive material to pose an actual danger after it is spread widely by the bomb you need a fair amount of it, or it needs to be very radioactive, and either way, the original package (bomb + concentrated highly radioactive material) is going to be very radioactive. That makes it hard to handle and transport. Real nuclear bombs don’t have this problem because they synthesize most of the radioactive stuff at the moment of explosion, from nonradioactive materials in the surroundings (e.g. dust sucked up by the explosion).

I think the original notion of a “dirty” bomb was a nuclear fizzle, a genuine nuclear weapon which didn’t quite work right, because it was built by North Koreans for example, and got only a generation or two of actual fission and a very small (for nukes) explosion. So it would be able to generate some new radioactives, plus it would spew a few kg of plutonium dust (which is extremely dangerous stuff) all over the place. I think the point was that some states (or state-sponsored terrorists) could consider this “failure” of a weapon nevertheless useful, because it would spew radioactives over a few city blocks and create a very expensive cleanup.

Taking it to the level of just mixing up some used hospital radioisotope waste with a conventional (chemical) bomb is an extrapolation, and my feeling is that it’s not a reasonable extrapolation, based on the simple principle that if it’s to be dangerous over a significant area, it would have to be far more dangerous when it is confined in the original device, the inverse square law being what it is.

Just a question: there’s absolutely no reason for civilian nuclear power plants to harbor weapons-grade uranium, right?

One of the big “Dirty Bomb” discussions surrounded the /Neutron Bomb.

aka “Republican Bomb” - kills people, leaves the property. (just kidding - that was the term at the time)

The purpose was to neutralize the massed Soviet armor along the E/W German border.

Once the discussion started, the possibility of a ‘bad guy’ ™ coming up with something along the same lines got us to this chat.

Define “harbor”.
Then look up “Breeder Reactor”.
Then look at the ease of disposal of nuclear waste.

A breeder will produce more fuel than it consumes. If you can’t get rid of it, where DO you store it.
Some US reactors have pools of water which glow - or maybe they finally found someplace to dump the stuff.

Correct.
The fuel used in reactors is only mildly enriched - to something like 5%, whereas weapons-grade fuel needs to be 97% or so.

And, just because breeder reactors generate fissionable Plutonium, that doesn’t make it weapons-grade, either. It still needs to be separated from the spent fuel, and it can’t be too contaminated with PU-240.

In France at least, it seems they could have been. After 9/11, it was mentioned that French nuclear plants were designed to withstand the accidental crash of a small plane, but couldn’t withsand a large airliner crash (deemed statistically too unlikely until the possibility of a deliberate action was envisioned). In fact, IIRC for a short while after 9/11, they installed anti-air missiles in nuclear plants.

And even if the containment of the reactor itself isn’t breached, couldn’t the crash be devastating enough for the situation to get out of control? I guess nuclear reactors are designed to shut down in case of massive problems (like the control room and cooling system destroyed or such) but is it a certainty?

I’ve got a brother who does nuclear plant security. They are organized as a Company-echelon infantry unit. Attacking his plant to steal its nuclear goodness would probably require a Battalion of terrorists. They do not mess around.

I’m pretty certain the usefulness of nuclear power outweighs the threat.

If I recall correctly that was a sci fi short story. The God loving Americans engineered the perfect bomb. Killed people deader than dead but left everything else intact. The Godless Commy Bastard Soviets built the perfect bomb. Makes everything fall apart (though one wonders about clothes :slight_smile: ) but leaves everybody alive.

Well, eventually WWIII comes along. So now you have all these naked Americans with nothing standing around. And you have this nice Soviet country all unoccupied. So, what the hell. lets move over there.

Well, the Americans start eating Russian food, living in Russian house, and (bad idea) reading Russian books and stuff.

They become the new Communists. :smack: