Terrorists have a two-fold interest in nuclear power plants and nuclear weapon facilities:
1) To obtain radioactive material for the development of a nuclear weapon
2) To cause a core meltdown or set fire to spent fuel pools, thus releasing radiation that would cause numerous fatalities and widespread devastation
Terror organizations have considered external attacks on nuclear facilities, such as crashing a plane into them (one of the options raised by Al Qaeda in planning 9/11) or using a small group of armed intruders to attack a plant. In addition, sabotage by a seemingly trusted employee is a very real possibility. Workers can disable many safety measures and can thus tamper with critical systems in the plant – to either steal nuclear material or potentially initiate a major radiologic emergency. Another type of attack highly coveted by terrorists is a cyber attack that would damage essential systems in a nuclear plant.
Insider problems have happened in top-security environments. A study by top scientists focusing on the issue of nuclear plant insiders states:
“The belief that personnel who have been through a background check will not pose an insider problem is remarkably widespread—a special case of the ‘not in my organization’ fallacy….First, background checks are often not very effective. Second, even completely trustworthy employees may become insiders, especially if they are coerced.”
Unlike the case of non-hostile emergencies (see previous blog post), response to hostile attacks includes apprehending of any terrorists active on site and relying on additional federal, state and local special response teams.
In the urgent mission to neutralize an ongoing attack, the nuclear facility’s security force, offsite law enforcement and/or national guard personnel may be exposed to high levels of radiation. Technical response teams, working against the clock to fix any damage, might also sacrifice their own safety in order to prevent a radiological disaster.
Radiation PPE is essential in such cases. Yet currently, emergency response teams are not equipped with PPE against gamma radiation, which is the most penetrating and lethal type of radiation. The reason – covering the whole body with a sufficiently thick sheath of lead would severely encumber movement. In response to this great life-and-death challenge, StemRad has developed selective radiation shielding technology. Its radiation PPE covers the body’s hip region, which contains the majority of the body’s stem cells, as well as its stem cell factory. As demonstrated in numerous medical experiments and stated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
“Acute Radiation Syndrome (sometimes known as radiation toxicity or radiation sickness) is an acute illness caused by irradiation of the entire body (or most of the body) by a high dose of penetrating radiation in a very short period of time (usually a matter of minutes). The major cause of this syndrome is depletion of immature parenchymal stem cells in specific tissues.”
By protecting stems cells in specific tissues, StemRad’s radiation PPE can prevent acute radiation syndrome – and also maintain the body’s natural recovery system. Patients treated for acute radiation syndrome until now had to rely on stem cell donations.
Awareness of this new technology is projected to increase its deployment for the benefit of critical emergency management and internal security missions.
Doses of radiation that cause lethality without StemRad’s PPE (red line) and with StemRad’s PPE (blue line). As this figure shows, without StemRad’s radiation PPE lethality occurs at a much lower dose. For further scientific information, see StemRad’s published scientific findings in Health Physics or refer to StemRad’s website.
Scott D. Sagan is a Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Co-chair of its Global Nuclear Future Initiative.
Matthew Bunn is Professor of Practice at the Harvard Kennedy School. His research interests include nuclear theft and terrorism. In the past, he served as an adviser to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.