Comment by Richard L. Garwin(1) on the 20 September 2002 SCIENCE article, "Nuclear Power Plants and Their Fuel as Terrorist Targets" (pp. 1997, 1999).

Nineteen of my fellow members of the National Academy of Engineering have published this article beginning with the point that the shipping casks for reactor fuel are unlikely to cause deaths or significant damage if attacked by aircraft or explosives. I agree. Please see my recent papers and book on nuclear weapons, nuclear power, and nuclear terrorism.(2)(3)(4)

But I disagree with much of the rest of the piece. I am a strong supporter of nuclear power, which has been safer and cleaner than the major competitor for electric plants-- coal. But our book judges that beyond the 30+ identifiable deaths from the 1986 Chernobyl accident, some 24,000 unidentified deaths from cancer are likely to result from the radioactive materials distributed primarily in the former Soviet Union and Europe.

I am a member of The National Academies' Committee on Science and Technology to Counter Terrorism, which published a June 2002 report.(5) Our Panel on Nuclear and Radiological Issues provided Chapter 2 of that report, addressing the questions of nuclear reactor safety in the case of terrorist acts and also the possible hazards of attacks on spent-fuel pools at reactors and elsewhere. We were unable to come to such comforting conclusions as did the authors of the SCIENCE article.

The Panel writes that ongoing "... studies suggest that a terrorist attack on an NPP could have potentially severe consequences if the attack were large enough. The severity is highly dependent on the specific design configuration of the NPP including details such as the location of specific safety equipment. Additional details are provided in the classified annex."

Regarding spent-fuel pools at reactors, the Panel writes, "The threat of terrorist attacks on spent fuel storage facilities, like reactors, is highly dependent on design characteristics. Moreover, spent fuel generates orders of magnitude less heat than an operating reactor, so that emergency cooling of the fuel in the case of attack could probably be accomplished using low-tech measures that could be implemented without significant exposure of workers to radiation. Dry cask storage systems are very robust and would probably stand up to aircraft attacks as well."

But these measures need to be designed and implemented.

  1. Biography at
  2. "The Techology of Megaterror," TECHNOLOGY REVIEW, September 2002 at
  3. "Nuclear and Biological Megaterrorism," by R.L. Garwin, presented at the 27th Session of the International Seminars on Planetary Emergencies, August 19-24, 2002. (At
  4. "Megawatts and Megatons - A Turning Point in the Nuclear Age?" by R.L. Garwin and G. Charpak, Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York, October 2001
  5. "Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism," The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, June 25, 2002. (Available at