So why don’t terrorists attack nuclear power plants?

Terrorists want to have the biggest impact possible – so why don’t they attack nuclear plants?

Those of us who live in the province of Ontario, and especially those who live in Pickering (just east of Toronto), awoke to a scary warning Sunday (January 12). We had been told via an emergency message about an incident at the Pickering nuclear generating station.

It was both alarming and oddly reassuring. Here is what we got:

WTF?

An ‘incident‘ but NO ‘abnormal‘ release of radioactivity and NO NEED to take protective actions at the time. WTF?

It turns out that the message was sent out in error and authorities are looking into just what happened. Not surprisingly, some who received the text did react as one would expect if told there was a ‘problem’ with a nuclear plant. One women went so far as to wonder “OK, is this a terrorist or something? What is happening?” A lot of thoughts were going through my head.

Again, all this was an error, but what if a terrorist group decided to try to attack a nuclear plant? That would be bad, right? Except that it has never really happened and may never come to pass.

What if a terrorist group decided to try to attack a nuclear plant? That would be bad, right? Except that it has never really happened.

Actually, there have been a number of ‘attacks’, as this Forbes’ article outlines, but nothing really serious and nothing remotely approaching an operation where terrorists could seize a plant and make the core ‘go critical’.

Which is really odd if you think about it. Why would terrorists NOT try to take out a nuclear power plant? Just think of the fallout (pun intended): mass panic; thousands of deaths, either immediate or gradual; a complete lack of faith in the nuclear industry; rendering an area unlivable for a very, very long time. What’s not to like about this if, as a terrorist group, you want to sow fear and chaos?

The Pickering nuclear plant (Photo: Canadian Press)

Why would terrorists NOT try to take out a nuclear power plant?

Maybe one reason is that it appears to take a true ‘rocket scientist’ to achieve any of this. Nuclear power plants are very complex things with multiple safeguards and highly technical machinery, not to mention encased in thick concrete shells. They are not quite like what is portrayed in The Simpsons.

There is also a lot of talk about terrorists getting their hands on a nuclear bomb or material to make one. Again, a nuclear power plant is not the place to get this material as it uses is not enriched enough to make a weapon. And enriching it is tough: just ask the Iranians.

Nuclear power plants are very complex things with multiple safeguards and highly technical machinery. They are not quite like what is portrayed in The Simpsons.

So no, I do not lose sleep at night obsessing about a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant. Besides, I used to brief protective services on terrorism at several Ontario facilities when I was at CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) and they struck me as more than capable of handling any breach in the perimeter by any wannabe terrorist. For the record, in one investigation I was involved in there was sporadic talk about going after a nuclear facility but this was seen – rightfully – as bravado with absolutely no chance of actually happening.

Besides, there are far too many other terrorist ideas and real plots already out there – cars, knives, guns, IEDs – to make me worry about nuclear schemes. And I think that will remain so.


When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.

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