This post has been in the works for a while. The truth is that we should be scared of terrorists with just about any medium more than nuclear fuel. On average over 10,000 Americans a year are killed with guns. Planes in the hands of terrorists killed thousands on 9/11. Explosives kill. A systematic attack on our computers could cause untold economic damage. A worst nightmare scenario would be chemical weapons... or biological weapons.
The worst case of a "dirty bomb" has been studied by the Department of Energy (where no one evacuates, there is no cleanup, and all stay in the area for a full year) and shown that it would not have lethal outcomes other than from the explosive itself... in other words, not a single person would be expected to die from the radiation dose.
The only significant implication of a dirty bomb versus a regular explosive device is simply the fear that people have of radiation. The fear may cause problems on its own, for instance, anecdotal evidence from a journalist who spent his carer studying Chernobyl suggested that people who refused to evacuate Chernobyl were significantly happier and outlived the evacuees by at least a decade. Likewise, in Fukushima, studies have suggested that over 700 have been killed by hasty evacuations, while none have been killed (nor are expected to be killed) from radiation. In this sense, we truly have nothing to fear but fear itself.
Not only this, many people may not realize, but unused nuclear fuel is completely safe to hold in your hands. As it is used and immediately after, it is almost too dangerous to even steal-- a person would get a lethal dose within minutes and the heat it produces means it can't be held or even transported without cooling.
Ignoring the relative impotence of a dirty bomb in the first place, what if someone just wanted to cause problems at a nuclear plant? They would have to penetrate one of the most protected areas in the world. An example of the security they face:
- First, they would have to enter the controlled grounds of the nuclear plant. If by road, they would have to pass a guard station. Otherwise, there are barbed wire fences.
- After parking, there is another set of fences, in fact there are at least double layers of fences, including both barbed wire as well as concrete walls, guarded by another checkpoint, including airport-like scanning of you and belongings.
- Inside the property, there are armed guards with automatics which patrol the grounds and man the surveillance turrets. These guards are often former special-ops soldiers, and are trained regularly with "force on force drills"-- practically a war of an armed force attempting to attack the facility. Even with the most knowledgeable counter-terrorism experts in America orchestrating the attacks, the guards succeed almost every time. You don't want to mess with these guys.
- If you want to enter secure areas of the facility, there is another barrier with another set of security personnel.
- The reactor itself is within at least a three foot thick concrete structure reinforced by steel. Spent fuel is also stored in reinforced concrete protected area, often below ground. These concrete structures are some of the strongest structures ever made by man. In fact, at Sandia Laboratory, they crashed an F-4 jet on a rocket sled into the concrete at 500 mph. The plane disintegrates, while the concrete stands. Watch the video at above.
- Finally, as mentioned above, the fuel is almost its own protection. It is extremely difficult to transport, it is unsafe to transport, and it produces a lot of heat, especially if removed from cooling.
Note: previously we had mistakenly listed a link to a NAS report on Chernobyl which did not exist. It has been removed.