Engineering Safety

Can Nuclear Risk Be Reduced to Zero?

Within weeks of the terrorist attack on the U.S. in 2001, thousands of Americans volunteered for some sort of military service. Blood donations surged.

In that time, how many Americans decided that another important way to help defend their country was to become an engineer? Figures aren’t readily available, but it’s a safe guess the number is low.

While the threat of terrorism had always lurked in the background, the 9/11 attacks made realistically and palpably clear that threats to this country are real. First, planes used as guided missiles – what could be next?

Attention quickly focused on weapons that could impact hundreds of thousands of people at a single blow, including those making use of nuclear materials.  The potential of uranium and plutonium to power the world can just as easily wipe out large portions of it. It’s no wonder the National Academy of Engineering cited stopping nuclear threats as one of its 14 Grand Challenges.

Nuclear safety experts in government and academia at the Raleigh Grand Challenges Summit agreed that engineers can and should play a significant part in making the country safer from nuclear terror.

Unlike other weapons of mass destruction, such as genetically altered microbes or nerve gases, the nuclear threat is unique in that it takes an entire industrial complex to produce the fuel. This represents the best “choke point” for preventing nuclear terrorism, the assembled experts agreed.

“Nuclear proliferation is different than other weapons – you need large facilities to enrich the uranium to weapons grade,” said William Charlton, director of the Nuclear Security Science and Policy Institute at Texas A&M. “This is the lynchpin of security. The genie of technology for building a bomb is already out of the bottle – but we can control the materials.”

This is a fertile area for the input of engineers, said Graham Allison, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

“Engineers can make an impact in the area of nuclear forensics,” Allison said. “This can be a promising field for young engineers.”

Allison said engineers can help in a number of areas, including developing new methods for “fingerprinting” nuclear material so its source can be indentified to devising new nuclear reactors whose spent fuel cannot be made into weapons-grade material. He termed this the equivalent of restrictor plates on NASCAR engines.

Watch Allison's spotlight address.

Another possibility rife for engineering input is coming up with a way to detect radioactive materials from a distance, such as scanning the contents of a supertanker or transport ship from the dock.

“It is just too impractical to scan every container on a ship before it is unloaded,” said Howard Hall, professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Tennessee. “The economy would grind to halt.”

Another research area, beyond strategies from tracking and detecting nuclear fuel, is one that may be unpleasant to contemplate, but nonetheless is needed. What happens if a device containing nuclear materials is set off? The input of engineers will be critical to finding the best way to clean up in the aftermath, as well as using those “nuclear forensics” skills to determine who did it.

All agreed that just as in the other 13 Grand Challenges, success in solving them is in large part dependant on creating a pipeline of talented young engineers eager to put their skills to creative use.

While there are many locations around the world where the protection of existing stockpiles of nuclear materials may not be ideal, Dale Klein, commissioner of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission which oversees that nation’s civilian nuclear materials, told the audience that nation’s 64 nuclear power plants are safe from terrorist attack.

“Since 9/11, we have strengthened the security at our nuclear facilities,” Klein said. “However, nuclear safety will always be a challenge, one that we will always have to address.”

Watch Klein's spotlight address.

Allison began the session by telling the audience that a month after 9/11, a CIA agent with the code name of Dragonfire reported that terrorists had stolen a stolen a nuclear weapon from a Russian arsenal and smuggled it into New York City. Officials had to decide if the uncorroborated report was real. Could terrorists have stolen it? Could the Russians account for all their weapons? Could terrorists have gotten it into the U.S.? The answers were yes, no and yes.

“They concluded that there was no basis to dismiss it as a false alarm,” Allison, said, reminding the audience that just as during the Cold War when the possibility of nuclear warfare always existed, the threat is still there, though in a much different form.

While the risk of a nuclear attack on the U.S. can never be reduced to zero, engineers can play a key role in getting as close to zero as possible.

Watch discussion.