Monday, November 14, 2005

Nuclear Reactors Are Tough, Terrorists Are Dumb

The reported plot by Islamic terrorists against an Australian nuclear reactor tells us that the terrorists were stupid, not that nuclear plants are vulnerable.

The story (my emphasis):

Eight Sydney men arrested on terrorism charges may have been planning a bomb attack against the city's nuclear reactor, police said on Monday.

Their Islamic spiritual leader, also charged with terrorism offences, told the men if they wanted to die for jihad they should inflict "maximum damage," according to a 21-page police court document.

The document outlines how the men, arrested last week in the nation's biggest security swoop, bought chemicals used in the London July 7 bombs, had bomb-making instructions in Arabic and videos entitled "Sheikh Osama's Training Course" and "Are you ready to die?"

Under the heading "Targets," police said three of the men were stopped near Sydney's Lucas Heights nuclear reactor in December 2004. A security gate lock had recently been cut.

To do any damage to a nuclear reactor, you need much more than a cut padlock and some backpack bombs. Reactors containers are designed to contain the worst credible failure, meltdown, which would leave them full of molten uranium at over 2,000 degrees (my ellipsis and emphasis):

(Nuclear reactors are) protected by at least three feet of reinforced concrete.

A ground attack is...unlikely to succeed. Even if terrorists could penetrate the normal security barriers, they would find that the control personnel had shut down the reactor. Turning it off can be done quickly (you hit a Big Red Button). And even if a meltdown could be produced, the thick concrete containment structure prevents the escape of radioactivity into the environment. Chernobyl had no such containment.

In the extremely unlikely event of a total reactor accident, the consequences are less severe than generally pictured.

We have already seen the worst scenario that one can imagine: Even so, Chernobyl killed only some 30 people -- those who were directly involved in putting out the fire. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the subsequent health effects have been minor: no increases in leukemia or birth defects; only cases of thyroid cancer that could have been avoided by taking protective potassium-iodide pills. Certainly, more people died from the panicky reaction to Chernobyl, including thousands of abortions by women in Western Europe who feared the consequences from the release of radiation.

Since terrorists are just criminals with "Islamic spiritual leaders", this daft plot demonstrates the strong inverse correlation between criminality and IQ (mean criminal IQ is 10 points below normal).