UT nuclear security report error-ridddled, lacking credibility

Posted Tuesday, Sep. 24, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Recently, newspaper headlines around the country said our nation’s nuclear power plants aren’t adequately protected from terrorists, based on the assertions in a paper released by a faculty member and a student assistant at the University of Texas at Austin (see “Reactors vulnerable, report says,” Aug. 16).

The UT paper, titled “Protecting U.S. Nuclear Facilities from Terrorist Attack: Re-assessing the Current Design Basis Threat Approach” fails to meet the most basic standards for credible research. It is fraught with errors and glaring speculation. Its quality is beneath the University of Texas at Austin.

As someone who has spent a good deal of my professional life working on nuclear security and nonproliferation issues, I found myself asking why such a sensational document would garner such attention when a cursory application of critical thinking quickly debunks most of the paper’s conclusions.

The most obvious observation is that the faculty member, whose experience is in political science, says in a footnote that the “research” was primarily by a graduate research assistant.

A quick review of the professor’s biography uncovers his deep ties to the anti-nuclear community, including with Greenpeace.

No technical or scientific credentials accompany the unsupported opinion that the procedures and systems that have successfully secured nuclear power plants in America for more than 60 years are flawed.

The paper contains no discussion of the highly technical and complex aspects of nuclear science, nuclear materials and nuclear engineering that would be necessary to logically form the basis for such conclusions.

In fact, it appears that neither of the authors has seen the inside of the nuclear facilities about which they are making a security assessment. To make such assessments, one would need to reference closely safeguarded security information to which neither the professor nor his student assistant had access.

The paper incorporates multiple technical errors. One of many examples is the inaccurate belief that a terrorist could “drain a spent fuel pool” at an American nuclear power plant and accomplish the same result as “what occurred in 2011 in Fukushima, Japan when an earthquake’s effects drained spent fuel pools.”

The inaccuracy of this statement speaks volumes to anyone familiar with such facilities.

The paper is essentially an essay based upon statements and quotes cobbled together to make the authors’ point.

The authors make Grand Canyon-size leaps to conclusions about the way multiple agencies assess the nature, posture and capability of an adversarial terrorist force.

They conclude that a one-size-fits-all approach should be used to assess the security at all nuclear facilities. They ignore distinctions that nuclear security experts understandably build into vulnerability assessments, each of which are tailored to different scenarios, facility types and nuclear asset types.

These are dangerous times. Nuclear security is a serious topic. It calls for assessment by serious people willing to do the hard work of real research.

There is nothing wrong with an academician or anyone else, including political activists, raising questions about public topics including security and even nuclear security. But it should be done in a responsible way and should be based on facts.

If conclusions are to be marketed as university “research,” they should be backed by credible data, authoritative sources’ expertise and peer reviews by unbiased experts.

Merely using the word “nuclear” in a title should not qualify written work for a lower standard of academic or journalistic scrutiny.

Jerry Paul is a nuclear engineer and attorney who formerly served as the principal deputy administrator of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration and as deputy administrator for nonproliferation. He also served as the distinguished fellow for energy policy at the University of Tennessee Howard Baker Center for Public Policy.

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