Exploiting our nuclear fears

It's alleged that three Australian terror suspects were thinking about targeting a nuclear reactor. Where could they have got an idea like that?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This morning’s news wires are buzzing with the revelation that some of those terror suspects arrested in Australia last week were toying with the idea of targeting a nuclear reactor. According to a police document released this morning, three of the 18 men arrested had been stopped near Lucas Heights – Australia’s only nuclear reactor, 25 miles south-west of Sydney – last December. ‘Nuclear link to terror suspects’, says the lead story on BBC News; ‘Nuclear link to Sydney terror case’, says CNN (1). The story seems to confirm people’s worst fears about terrorism: sure, they might only be handfuls of cranks, but think of the destruction they could cause if they detonated a bomb or crashed a jet into a nuclear reactor so close to a major city.

The first noteworthy thing about the story is how flimsy it seems: apparently the three men were arrested near to Lucas Heights, but we’re not told how near; and apparently a lock on the gate to the reactor’s reservoir had been ‘recently cut’, but we’re not told how recently or whether there is evidence linking the three men to said cutting. What’s more, it is presumably a long way to go from driving a car ‘near’ a nuclear reactor to attacking that nuclear reactor in a fashion that would release dangerous radioactive material and kill civilians. Even if these three characters were scouting the area with an eye for doing something dodgy, did they have the know-how or wherewithal to make a bomb big enough to damage a nuclear reactor, transport it 25 miles from Sydney to Lucas Heights, break into the installation, and then blow the bomb up?

The second noteworthy thing about the story – and in many ways the most interesting – is why these suspects may have (allegedly) set their sights on a nuclear reactor. If it is true, as the Australian police hint but the three men’s lawyers deny, that the suspects were plotting something scary down Lucas Heights way, then this looks to me like another case of alleged terrorists exploiting the West’s own fears. Since 9/11 – and even before it, in fact – politicians, experts and commentators in America and Europe have fretted out loud about the possibility of terrorists attacking a reactor as a short cut to killing thousands of civilians: public consultations have been held, terror scenarios have been acted out at various reactors, and some have demanded the shutting down of reactors because they pose a ‘catastrophic risk to public safety’ (2). If a few individuals Down Under really have been plotting to cause catastrophe – or just fantasised about causing catastrophe – by attacking a nuclear reactor, then they surely got the idea from us.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, long before any alleged Aussie terrorists showed an interest in attacking a nuclear reactor (or at least drove ‘near’ to one), campaigners and officials in the West raised the terrible Day After-style scenario of thousands perishing as a result of some wacko crashing into or bombing a nuclear installation. On 14 September 2001, three days after 9/11, the presidents of the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) and the Committee to Bridge the Gap – two nuclear watchdog groups based in the US – wrote to the chairman of America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, DC, requesting that he ‘urgently’ advise President Bush, and ‘the governors of each of the 32 states in which operation nuclear power plants are located’, to call up National Guard forces for the ‘purpose of providing additional security for these plants’. They also urged the deployment of ‘radar-directed, anti-aircraft weaponry at the plant sites’ (3).

The letter-writers claimed that, because a nuclear power reactor ‘contains an enormous inventory of highly radioactive materials’, a successful attack ‘could produce tens of thousands of latent cancers among the downwind population over a distance of hundreds of miles from the plant and severely contaminate the area’. In other words, they said, ‘the consequences of a successful attack on a nuclear power plant near a major metropolitan area would dwarf the human and economic toll of the recent attacks in New York and Washington’ (4). So, just three days after the worst terrorist attack ever on American soil, some fevered imaginations were already coming up with – and calling for protection against – even worse scenarios.

On what basis did they claim that terrorists might be interested in attacking a nuclear reactor? Apparently in 1987 Iran issued a threat against ‘US centers and nuclear reactors’, and in 1993 an American man crashed his car into the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania – and these unrelated events apparently demonstrate that the NCI was right to call on the authorities throughout the 1990s to ‘upgrade protection at nuclear power plants against truck-bomb attacks and other armed assaults’ (5). There are also reports that Ramzi Yousef, who was convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, may have expressed to friends a desire to attack a nuclear reactor – though it remains uncertain whether he or anyone else ever intended to do so, and, as Jason Burke points out in Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Yousef pretty much did his own thing and had few direct links with bin Laden or al-Qaeda (6).

So in essence, the rise of the nuclear-reactor-as-terror-target-and-harbinger-of-doom scenario was not a result of Osama bin Laden issuing a diktat about attacking reactors or the discovery of evidence that al-Qaeda-style groups have the means to execute such an assault; rather, it was first thrust into the public arena by nuclear watchdog types who watched the events of 9/11 and thought to themselves: ‘How much worse those attacks would have been if the target were nuclear reactor!?’

In the weeks and months after 9/11, these reactor-terror scenarios snowballed and became bound up in anti-nuclear and environmentalist groups’ broader campaigns against the development of nuclear power. In October 2001, the NCI and Greenpeace even protested against the plan to ship mixed uranium-plutonium oxide fuel from Japan to Britain, because ‘given the tragic events of 11 September, we believe that assessments of the terror threat and proliferation risk must be prepared before any decision is made with respect to the proposed transfer’ (7). The protesters claimed that ‘the theft of [this] plutonium would be an attractive target for those seeking to obtain nuclear weapons materials’, possibly including ‘terrorist groups’ (8). The nuke-worriers quickly went from arguing that nuclear reactors were a sitting target for terrorists to claiming that even transporting nuclear materials could potentially pose a terror threat.

More than a year ago, Greenpeace used the politics of terror to describe nuclear reactors as tragedies waiting to happen, as if the means for the West’s destruction lurked within these very installations and were just waiting to be triggered by some loon from over there. ‘Each nuclear reactor has the potential to devastate the region in which it operates’, Greenpeace said. ‘If a meltdown were to occur either in the reactor or in the spent fuel pool, the accident could kill and injure tens of thousands of people, leaving large regions uninhabitable…. Now that terrorists [may target] nuclear plants, these reactors are not merely a dangerous and complicated way to boil water but also constitute a national security threat.’ (9)

Here, green groups cynically exploited the politics of fear, and the general concern about terrorism post-9/11, to give a kick to their anti-nuclear campaigning. They ratcheted up fear about death and destruction at the hands of bomb-wielding or plane-driving terrorists as opportunistically as did President Bush and UK prime minister Tony Blair: Bush and Blair did it to justify wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Greenpeace and others did it to sow further doubts about nuclear power and to call for reactors to be shut down before they cause ‘catastrophe’. Indeed, even those who were critical of Bush and Blair’s exploitation of the politics of terror were only too happy to do the same when it came to casting doubts on nuclear power. In March 2003, one radical anti-war website ran a piece titled ‘Nuclear reactors as terror weapons: the nightmare waiting at the back door’, which argued that ‘while the world is watching the war in Iraq, no one seems to be paying attention to the likelihood of a terrorist attack on a nuclear power station. The horror and economic consequences of breaching a nuclear power reactor would certainly exceed 9/11.’ (10)

From the NCI’s calls for certain nuclear reactors to be shut down lest terrorists attack them to radical environmentalists’ claims that such reactors could unleash a terror that would dwarf 9/11, the message to any terrorist seeking to do precisely that – to ‘exceed 9/11’ – was pretty clear: attack a nuclear installation!

This fear of nuclear reactors and what they might do to us goes back to the 1980s and 90s, predating the emergence of al-Qaeda and before the vast majority of us had even heard the name Osama bin Laden. It has its origins, not in the aims or dastardly aspirations of terrorists from over there, but rather in a sense of doubt and uncertainty over here. Following the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukraine in 1986, nuclear power in general, and nuclear reactors in particular, became a focus for a rising climate of fear about the future, about new technologies, and about the apparently unacceptable risks posed by modern development to everyday life.

In his reflections on Chernobyl and nuclear power in Risk Society, Ulrich Beck argued that our fears were not linked to any clear evidence that nuclear is more dangerous than other energy sources, but rather were the result of a generalised and perceived sense of risk. He said that the non-visible character of nuclear radiation meant that this perception of risk could become even more detached from the facts of the matter (11). In short, post-Chernobyl, nuclear power became a kind of metaphor for a sense of risk in Western society – and nuclear reactors came to be seen as a deadly threat lurking within our own societies.

Post-9/11, the fear of nuclear power has mixed with the fear of terrorism, leading to the telling of wild horror stories about terrorists potentially killing thousands of us, destroying our homes and habitats, and giving thousands more of us cancer and other deadly diseases. The terrorists haven’t done this, of course, and there is still little clear evidence that they ever could. Rather, earlier concerns about nuclear power are being projected on to terrorists from afar; Western society’s own doubt about new technologies has been transformed into apocalyptic visions of handfuls of madmen triggering the massive bombs that apparently are situated in our own countrysides and deserts. Such visions were first spelled out by nuclear-concerned and green campaigners, but they have since been cynically co-opted by political and military leaders who now cite the alleged threat posed to nuclear reactors as further justification for their ‘war on terror’.

So it is perhaps not surprising that a bunch of guys in Australia should allegedly have considered a nuclear reactor as a terror target. This latest development would seem to demonstrate that terrorists (or alleged terrorists) merely feed off our fears. Far from being the terrible enemy that we have been led to believe – who are planning a ‘holocaust’ against us, as one particularly overexcited author put it – today’s terror groups tend to be ragbags of deluded nihilists and opportunists who thrive on tapping into our worst fears. And the fear of terrorists dwarfing and exceeding 9/11 by attacking a reactor has been doing the rounds for years now. If some Australians were considering such an attack, then we gave them the idea; if a terrorist were to attack a reactor then it could surely be viewed as the phsyical expression of a fear and loathing about nuclear that has its origins very much in the West.

If, however, this story also turns out to be stuff and nonsense, and it transpires that the three men were planning no such thing – well, then we have unnecessarily raised the terror-attack-on-a-nuclear-reactor scenario yet again.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) Nuclear link to Sydney terror case, CNN, 14 November 2005

(2) Sabotage and terrorism, Greenpeace USA, 2004

(3) Letter to Richard Meserve, from the Nuclear Control Institute and the Committee to Bridge the Gap, 14 September 2001

(4) Letter to Richard Meserve, from the Nuclear Control Institute and the Committee to Bridge the Gap, 14 September 2001

(5) Letter to Richard Meserve, from the Nuclear Control Institute and the Committee to Bridge the Gap, 14 September 2001

(6) pp100-102, Al-Qaeda: Casting a Shadow of Terror, Jason Burke, IB Tauris, 2003

(7) Review of MOX shipment from Japan to Great Britain, Nuclear Control Institute, 25 October 2001

(8) Review of MOX shipment from Japan to Great Britain, Nuclear Control Institute, 25 October 2001

(9) Sabotage and terrorism, Greenpeace USA, 2004

(10) Nuclear plants as terror weapons, Counterpunch, 21 March 2003

(11) Risk Society: Towards A New Modernity, Ulrich Beck, Sage Publications 1992

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