Cleaning The Augean Stables : Part 1
In the first part of this ‘what if?’ scenario, Oscar Archer imagines what might happen if terrorists descended on the sleepy coastline of Suffolk…
The well-lit room was drab and grey-walled with a single broad laminate table in the centre. One of the two metal chairs was occupied by a stocky man in a dark green chequered shirt, with a worried, slightly sweaty face and receding blond hair. His eyes frequently glanced up at the big mirror facing him on the wall, and his hands wrung themselves together nervously.
To the side of the mirror, a door in the corner of the room swung open. A tall woman in a black tailored suit walked in. A guard’s hand pulled the door shut as she came to the desk and sat. Her nose and cheeks were pronounced, framed by shoulder-length black hair.
“Iain Bottrell?” she asked in a neutral tone, while arranging a file folder and notepad before her.
Bottrell nodded, then croaked, “Yes.”
“I’m Agent Michelin. I’m with the NNSA and you won’t be surprised that we’re very interested in everything you have to tell us about the terrorist plan to construct an unsanctioned nuclear weapon.”
Bottrell’s grey eyes met her hazel ones. “As I said to the other agents,” he murmured, “I’m ready to explain the whole thing to you, but it’s up to you whether or not you believe it.”
The terrorist plot was divided into three phases: obtain nuclear waste, isolate the plutonium, and build the bomb. It wasn’t clear if this sequence had been devised by the terrorist leader, some kind of terrorist committee, or the shadowy figures who also supplied the terrorists their funding.
Whoever it was had obviously tried to do at least a few sums on what was needed, and so the plan called for an assault on an operating nuclear power plant to steal two used fuel assemblies from out of the fuel pool, which would technically contain about 10 kg of plutonium, of which over half would be Pu-239, the transuranic isotope used in every plutonium-based device, which was generated from some of the uranium-238 present in the fuel.
The initial target was Sizewell B, the pressurised water reactor on the coast of Suffolk in the UK, probably because the destination for the illicit haul was a base of operations on a minor island somewhere up in the Northern Isles.
The operation would begin at dawn, with an initial crowd of protestors picketing the fence around the main gate. These people would consist of every anti-nuclear person that responded to a fake protest leaflet campaign in Ipswich, using hired vehicles to transport them to the coast that morning. Signs, food, and vouchers would be provided, and operatives would be placed among them to encourage a suitable fervour, but to also make sure nothing triggers an escalated security response until the correct time. Out of sight of the gate, trained operators would pilot drones through the immediate airspace of the reactor building.
As night fell, the operations boat would take station off the beach on the opposite site of the plant, with armed crews ready in zodiacs. At the signal, a sizeable number of protestors would be encouraged to breach the southern fence and fan out into the Sizewell A site, igniting flares and generally advancing north while evading security forces. This would provide the distraction during which the second armed group (Alpha) would intrude through the northern equipment depot in vehicles carrying the equipment. Simultaneously, crews would land on the beach (Beta) and meet all-terrain vehicles which would charge the boundary between the eastern-most structures. One of these vehicles would tow the double-ended braided steel cable, the other would carry a scissor lift and deep-bottomed, lidded and insulated steel dingy in its rear tray.
Taking advantage of the site-wide chaos and using lethal force where necessary, Alpha would penetrate the fuel pool building with pulley equipment and sufficient high explosives for reinforced concrete wall demolition. The fuel pool deck would be secured before blowing a foot-wide whole in the eastern wall, then receiving the cable fed up and through by Beta, who will have lifted the dingy onto the lower northern roof, and positioned it on castors below the breached wall.
Using the fuel crane, a first used fuel assembly would be extracted from the storage rack, and one of the two ends of the cable affixed by heavy duty clamp under the water via long poles. This would be repeated for the second assembly while the first was kept from tilting by tension on the cable. Finally, the cable would be reeled in over the wide pulley wheel mounted to the lip of the fuel pool, with Alpha sheltering as the pair of fuel assemblies lifted out of the water, over and onto the deck. Similarly, Beta would shelter as the radioactive material exited the hole and dropped into the dingy. It’s expected that the robust nature of the cladding alloy would protect against drop damage.
As Alpha exited the building, members of Beta would close and latch the lid of the dingy with poles then ensure a clear path from the roof to the plant perimeter, up to and including exchanging fire with plant security and any reinforcements. At this point the main operations vessel would accelerate out to sea and drag the dingy the 300 metres to the beach. Alpha and Beta would follow in zodiacs at a safe distance after executing a fighting withdrawal.
“Somehow, the way you tell it sounds even more insane than when I read it on the way here,” said Agent Michelin with a hint of wonder.
“It’s what I was told, all of it.” Bottrell picked at his fingernails, his hands shaking noticeably. “Even though they said not to worry about it. How we got hold of the assemblies wasn’t my concern — only what we needed to do with them.”
“But yanking used fuel straight out of the pool!”
“They insisted that it wasn’t my concern when I objected to the idea. They felt that minimising exposure would be sufficient. After all, these were people who were willing to engage the security forces in potential firefights.”
Michelin regarded him. “Yet they expected to drop a pair of hot fuel bundles weighing over a tonne down the side of the building into a dingy without needing to get anywhere near them.”
“They still knew basically what they would be dealing with. The instinct to stay away being what it is, they’d convinced themselves that part would be easy.”
“Tell me what you were going to do with them.”
“I… I’ll get to that. You can’t make anything with hot used fuel bundles, even when they’ve been in the pool for ten years. First you have to reprocess them, and there’s only one way that would work for their purposes.”
Oscar Archer holds a PhD in chemistry and has been analysing energy issues for over 15 years, focusing on nuclear technology for seven, with a background in manufacturing and QA. He helps out at Adelaide-based Bright New World as Senior Advisor (we want your support!) and writes for The Fourth Generation. Find him @OskaArcher on Twitter.