Second quarter of 2002

The US prepare to face new terrorist attack, but most of nuclear reactors could not withstand it

WISE-Paris, 23 May 2002

[Posted 23/05/2002]

While aviation security issues, in particular the handling of the pre-September 11 attacks, continue to be discussed, FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) Director Robert Mueller declared on 20 May 2002 that "another terrorist attack" in the United States was not to be excluded (1). The uncertainty about the type of future terror attacks leaves all catastrophe-scenarios open. After September 11, one of them is a deliberate plane crash on a nuclear installation. But security at nuclear sites has hardly improved and is far from being satisfactory, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had to admit earlier in 2002.

On 4 March 2002, the NRC addressed answers to Democrat Congressman Edward Markey’s correspondence, in which he had requested explanations on the safety and security measures applied on the US nuclear sites, following the 11 September terrorist attacks (2).

The responses, commented by Ed Markey’s staff, are quite appalling. According to the NRC, 99 of the 103 US active commercial nuclear reactors were designed without regard to the potential for impact of even a small aircraft. For 56 reactors located on 37 sites, the probability of an accidental aircraft crash was considered to be low enough not to be incorporated into the designs. Whereas, 43 reactors located on 28 different sites don’t even consider the probability of an accident involving an aircraft crash.

Only 4 reactors were designed including the possibility of an aircraft crash. Yet, the reactor designs were evaluated to consider impacts from aircraft weighing up to 12,500 pounds (around 5,700 kg). Which represents 3 to 4 percent of the maximum weight of a Boeing 757/767 like the ones used in the attacks of 11 September 2001, which can weigh up to 450,000 pounds (around 200,000 kg).

The NRC has rejected installing anti-aircraft missiles at nuclear facilities, adding that “there would be enormous command and control problems and a large potential for unintended consequences and collateral damages if such weaponry were deployed”. No-fly-zones were decided on 2 November 2001 but were levied a week later.


  1. Suicide Attacks Certain in U.S., Mueller Warns, New York Times, 20 May 2002,
  2. Security Gap: a Hard Look at the Soft Spots in our Civilian Nuclear Reactor Security”, staff summary of responses by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to Correspondence from Rep. Edward Markey, 25 March 2002,

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