The first hint of trouble would probably be no more than shadows flitting through the darkness outside one of the nation's nuclear power reactors. Beyond the fencing, black-clad snipers would take aim at sentries atop guard towers ringing the site. The guards tend to doubt they would be safe in their bullet-resistant enclosures. They call such perches iron coffins, which is what they could become if the terrorists used deadly but easily obtainable .50-cal. sniper rifles.
The saboteurs would break through fences by using bolt cutters or Bangalore torpedoes, pipe-shaped explosives developed by the British army in India nearly a century ago. The terrorists would blast through outer walls using platter charges, directed explosives developed during World War II, giving them access to the heart of the plant. They would use gun-mounted lasers and infrared devices to blind the plant's cameras, and electronic jammers to paralyze communications among its defenders. They would probably be armed with precious information--hand-drawn maps, drawings of control panels, weak spots in the site's defenses--provided by a covert comrade working inside the plant.
As they forced their way into the control room, many if not most of the attackers might die battling the remaining guards, but it was always a suicide mission. Once inside, the terrorists' hard work would be over. Then, surprisingly, would come the easy part: triggering a nuclear meltdown. They would spend a minute or two carefully flipping, disabling and breaking specific controls and switches, shutting down pumps and operating key valves. It would be a deadly sequence that they had mastered in advance from an accomplice who had probably worked in the control room of the reactor or another plant, maybe abroad. "They'd be trying to cause a loss-of-coolant accident that results in a meltdown," says David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer who spent 17 years working in reactors. It may sound farfetched, but Lochbaum says causing a reactor catastrophe is really that simple. "It's irreversible once that last switch is flipped."
If everything went according to the terrorists' plan, radiation could begin spewing into the nighttime sky within 20 minutes, says Lochbaum, now a nuclear-safety engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear-watchdog group. The lethal plume, drifting hundreds of miles downwind, could kill tens of thousands within a year and hundreds of thousands eventually.
That isn't some wild-eyed fantasy but what some experts fear is a realistic scenario. Many of the terrorists' tactics depicted here are taken from a Department of Energy (DOE) training video for guards at nuclear facilities. The control-room plot is based on the concerns of veterans from the nuclear industry. Physicist Kenneth Bergeron, who spent most of 25 years at Sandia National Laboratories researching nuclear-reactor safety, says plant operators focus security efforts on keeping bad guys out. They assume that no one with malicious intent will wind up at the controls and thus do not build in fail-safe mechanisms that would prevent a saboteur from engineering a catastrophe. As a result, says Paul Blanch, a nuclear-safety expert who oversaw reactors for Northeast Utilities in Connecticut for 25 years, "a knowledgeable terrorist inside a control room can cause a meltdown in fairly short order."