The Incredible Safety of Nuclear Energy Part Two

The nuclear power plant provides the mock attackers with insider information including the location of and path to all important equipment. The mock intruders tend to proceed to attempt to breach the plant’s security and disable this key equipment.

They monitor the success of the armed security forces, study their defences and swiftly act upon any weaknesses in their defences.

What about internal threats? After all, plant personnel may themselves be terrorists or seek to aid terrorist attacks. As a precaution against this, nuclear power plants subject new employees and all contractor employees to rigorous background checks.

The background checks cover employment, education, criminal history, drug and alcohol screening as well as psychological evaluations.

They immediately remove from their post and place under evaluation anyone under the influence of drugs or alcohol or showing signs of unusual behaviour. They subject all employee behaviour to continual and rigorous observation by trained professionals.

In addition, they provide counselling for any job-related issues or unusual conduct.

In the US, the FBI classifies nuclear power plants as “hardened targets”. Although nuclear power plants are not immune to terrorist or military attacks, they are rated as the best at protecting their assets outside of the military. And are thus among the least likely to be used to stage terrorist or military attacks.

In fact, it would probably take a concerted military threat to pose a significant threat to the security employed by nuclear power plants.

Of course, a military could make a determined strike against a nuclear power plant. But we should not expect the utility industry to defend itself against a determined military attack.

You Cannot Make Nuclear Bombs

People widely believe that terrorists could hijack a nuclear power plant and turn it into a bomb. But this is just not possible. This is easy to understand if we grasp the key differences between a nuclear power plant and a nuclear bomb.

Nuclear fission is the process of hitting the nucleus of an atom with a series of neutrons that splits it apart and releases energy. A nuclear reactor uses energy from this process.

Fission involves hitting uranium atoms with slow-moving neutrons.  The most common isotope of uranium, uranium 238, does not normally do much when hit by slow-moving neutrons and the nucleus is unlikely to break apart.

But, the other principal isotope of uranium, uranium 235 is less stable and is more likely to absorb the neutron and break apart when hit by a slow-moving neutron.

When the nucleus splits apart, it releases energy in the form of heat. The turbines use this energy to turn and produce electricity.

The process continues because when uranium 235 splits apart, it generates two lighter atoms and two or three new neutrons. Which can then hit other uranium atoms and continue the process, generating heat every time an atom splits. Every time a neutron hits an atom, the atom releases more neutrons and these neutrons hit still more atoms.

35Here is an illustration of nuclear fission.

This self-perpetuating series of collisions is known as a chain reaction.

Nuclear power plants can moderate the chain reaction so as not to create too much heat or energy. They do this by inserting control rods which soak up some of the neutrons and slow down the chain reaction. This is an important safety feature of all nuclear power plants.

Natural uranium only contains about 0.7% uranium 235. To sustain this chain reaction, you need uranium with a proportion of uranium 235 at about 4%. This requires a process known as enrichment.

But for a nuclear bomb, you need much more than 4% of fissile material, which is usually isotopes of uranium 235 or plutonium 239. You need 90 percent or more. Which requires far more enrichment than that which takes place in nuclear power plants.

Here is some plutonium.

So even if terrorists acquired the fissile material used in nuclear reactions, it would not help them create a nuclear weapon. They would still need to significantly enrich the uranium and that takes extensive facilities, time and resources.

It is a very expensive, industrially intensive process that requires considerable time, resources and highly advanced equipment such as atomic centrifuges.

Therefore, many less developed countries do not have highly developed nuclear weapon capabilities that match those of more industrially developed and richer countries such as the United States.

It is not feasible that they could use the power plants own enrichment facilities to enrich the material in a realistic period.

The best that they could do is take the materials away and enrich them in the safety of some other state. But, travelling to their home country carrying fissile materials is hardly a trivial task!


We have seen that nuclear power plants have several highly detailed, comprehensive and redundant design and safety procedures. The result is that a failure of any system/operator is unlikely to cause a major incident.

Even if systems fail, there are redundant systems and other systems to mitigate the consequences of system failures.

Barring a major military strike, nuclear power plants are not likely to be vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The security employed is capable of withstanding paramilitary attacks, even when provided with comprehensive insider information.

Power plants can withstand most natural disasters without a serious containment breach. Even if a natural disaster occurs, power plants can take steps to greatly minimize the extent of the breach and the impact of the breach.

The overall death toll is surprisingly low given that a great many reactor-years have been accumulated. Especially when we consider that a single incident caused most of the deaths. An incident that does not accurately represent how modern nuclear power plants are run.

And our safety award goes to … nuclear power production!

And then we saw that it is not practical to turn the fuel taken from a power plant into a nuclear bomb. Anyone capable of doing this can probably afford to acquire the material without stealing it from a power plant.

So, nuclear power plants are in fact incredibly safe. One should not fear having one in their area. In the next episode, we shall see that the risk involved with nuclear power plants pales compared to some of the alternatives.

Leave a comment