Weaponized Nuclear Power Plants

Cade May
May 15, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: The ionizing radiation hazard symbol. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Bombs are not the only form of nuclear terrorism. In the United States, there are over 60 nuclear power plants in operation. Henry Sokolski, the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, fears that people with destructive intentions could attempt to unleash the power of the nuclear energy system. He says that "the purchase or theft of nuclear materials from Iran, North Korea, or other rogue states . . . is less likely than possible attacks against nuclear facilities". [1] While the construction of a functional nuclear weapon requires obscure resources, high-level expertise, and sophisticated technology, disturbing a nuclear power plant has a much lower barrier. Reliance on nuclear energy could pose a risk to national security. (Fee Fig. 1.)

Why it Matters

Japan's Fukushima Daiichi disaster demonstrates that the consequences of nuclear fallout may outweigh the economic advantages of atomic energy. When things are going according to plan, nuclear energy provides a tremendous amount of economic value. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a nuclear plant can generate around $470 million in net value each year. [2] However, this figure is nothing compared to the damage that can be done by a nuclear plant. The Fukushima Daiichi incident had a devastating impact on Japan's economy. After accounting for damages, and the cleanup of radioactive waste (Fig. 1), Japan had to spend an estimated $188 billion. [3] A single unfortunate incident can wipe away all the value a nuclear plant can provide.

Physical Attacks on Nuclear Power Plants

Many experts fear that terrorists could breach the security of nuclear reactors. [4] Sokolski suggests that many active nuclear power plants have weak points, which include but are not limited to their spent fuel pools, their electricity supplies, and their pressure vessel containment domes. [1] He refers to a 1982 study, which found that "if a jet aircraft crashed into a nuclear reactor and only 1% of its fuel ignited after impact, the resulting explosion could compromise the integrity of the containment building, with possible release of radioactive material". [1] This analysis aligns with the perspective of nuclear safety expert John Large, who suggests that "You don't need massive amounts of force to allow a nuclear plant to go into instability. The plant has enough energy to destroy itself". [5]

Cyber Attacks on Nuclear Power Plants

Nuclear power plants are also susceptible to cyber terrorism. There are a variety of historical precedents for software being used to threaten nuclear reactors. In 2010, Iran identified a computer virus that was impacting the operations its Natanz nuclear facilities. [6] This virus, now known as Stuxnet, is believed to have destroyed an upwards of 1000 nuclear centrifuges. [7] The Stuxnet incident made it clear that the security of nuclear systems is an unsolved problem. In 2014, another cyber attack occurred at a South Korean nuclear facility. While no reactors were directly influenced and no critical data was obtained by the hackers, this circumstance sent an eerie message. Suh Kune-yull of Seoul National University says the event "demonstrated that, if anyone is intent with malice to infiltrate the system, it would be impossible to say with confidence that such an effort would be blocked completely". [8] The fact that the integrity of such powerful systems can be jeopardized by malicious software brings the future of nuclear energy into question.

© Cade May. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] H. Sokolski, "Too Speculative? Getting Serious About Nuclear Terrorism," The New Atlantis, No. 14, 119 (Fall 2006).

[2] "Nuclear Energys Economic Benefits Current and Future," Nuclear Energy Institute, April 2012.

[3] Y. Obayashi and K. Hamada, "Japan Nearly Doubles Fukushima Disaster-Related Cost to $188 Billion," Reuters, 8 Dec16.

[4] A. J. Rubin and M. Schreuer, "Belgium Fears Nuclear Plants Are Vulnerable," New York Times, 25 Mar 16.

[5] C. Phillips and C. Gaffey, "Most French Nuclear Plants 'Should Be Shut Down' Over Drone Threat," Newsweek, 24 Feb 15.

[6] N. Jain, "Stuxnet and the Future of Zero Day Exploits," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[7] D. Albright, P. Brannan, and C. Walrond, "Did Stuxnet Take Out 1,000 Centrifuges at the Natanz Enrichment Plant?," Institute for Science and International Security, 22 Dec 10.

[8] M. Cho and J. Kim, "South Korea Nuclear Plant Operator Says Hacked, Raising Alarm," Reuters, 21 Dec 14.