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Thursday, 1 November, 2001, 10:11 GMT
Nuclear agency warns of threat
Security guards, AFP
US nuclear power plants are on highest alert
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is calling on the world's nuclear powers to tighten security at their nuclear plants to avoid them being targeted by terrorists.

The UN nuclear watchdog, which is holding a special session on nuclear terrorism on Friday, warned that security at some nuclear sites and centres where radioactive material is stored was disturbingly weak.

We have seen an aerial attack on a building, and the threat that a nuclear facility may be attacked in a similar manner now must be considered a serious security threat

Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA head
Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, told the BBC that the ruthlessness of the 11 September attacks on the United States showed there was a "new dimension to the nuclear threat".

The US has already banned small private airplanes from flying near the 103 nuclear power plants around the country after Attorney General John Ashcroft warned of the possibility of additional attacks on American interests.

France, for its part, is protecting nuclear facilities with surface-to-air missiles. In the UK, fighter planes have patrolled the sky above the Sellafield plant in northwest England.

'Low risk'

"We have seen an aerial attack on a building, and the threat that a nuclear facility may be attacked in a similar manner now must be considered a serious security threat," Mr ElBaradei said.

Security at a nuclear power plant, AP
Security forces at nuclear plants must demonstrate they can repel a small, well-armed force
Critics of nuclear power say that the plants were never designed to withstand a direct hit from a passenger airliner and say that future plant construction needs to be reconsidered in light of the terrorist threat.

The nuclear power industry say that critics are playing on fears of terrorism to promote their anti-nuclear agenda and that although not specifically designed to withstand a direct hit from an airliner, the possibility of a radiation release from such an attack is low.

But Ed Lyman, scientific director for the Nuclear Control Institute, said that nuclear power plants in the US would be highly vulnerable to the kind of attacks carried out against the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

"They were not designed with this kind of attack in mind, and it is foolish to make statements, like some in the industry have, that plants could withstand that," Mr Lyman said.

But Steve Kerekes, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), said that US nuclear power plants were designed to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes and flying debris from hurricanes.

Dirty bombs

In addition to the construction requirements, the NEI, which represents the nuclear power industry, said plants were protected by security personnel who were subjected to security clearance background checks.

Plants must also prove that they can repel attacks from small groups of paramilitary troops with automatic weapons and armed with explosives, and an attack by employees working inside the plant or an attack from a four-wheel drive vehicle bomb.

But Mr Lyman said that while the level of security was high at operating plants, decommissioned plants or non-power reactors were not subjected to the same level of security scrutiny.

And he added that spent fuel stored at decommissioned plants posed a much more immediate threat than an airborne attack at an active plant.

Another threat identified by the IAEA is the lack of security around sources of radioactive material used in industrial and medical applications.

It is feared that this material, as well as nuclear material that has been smuggled across borders, could be used in so-called dirty bombs, which use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive particles.

The BBC's Sue Nelson
"America has already extended no-fly zones around its nuclear installations"
Mohamad ElBaradei, Director General, IAEA
"There is a new dimension to the nuclear threat"
Morten Bremer-Maerli, Nuclear Security expert
outlines the dangers of nuclear terrorism
See also:

31 Oct 01 | Americas
US steps up nuclear security
31 Oct 01 | Americas
Anthrax: Charting the US cases
29 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
Mail sterilisation: The options
30 Oct 01 | Americas
Q&A: The anthrax mystery
30 Oct 01 | Americas
Sitting ducks on NY underground?
31 Oct 01 | UK
UK security remains tight
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