Regulating against Nuclear Terrorism: The Domestic Safeguards Issue, 1970-1979
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Technology and Culture 42.1 (2001) 107-132

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Regulating against Nuclear Terrorism: The Domestic Safeguards Issue, 1970-1979

J. Samuel Walker


During the early years of commercial nuclear power development in the 1950s and 1960s, the main concern with regard to reactor safety was the possibility of a severe accident that would cause a massive release of radioactivity into the environment. The nuclear industry and the government agency primarily responsible for nuclear safety, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), focused their efforts on preventing an accident that would seriously imperil the health of those exposed to radiation from a crippled plant. But another problem of potentially even greater importance received less attention: making certain that reactor fuels or other materials could not be used by individuals or groups to make nuclear weapons. The objective of keeping materials that could be made into bombs from reaching the hands of terrorists, criminals, or aberrant individuals did not receive a great deal of consideration until the 1970s, when it emerged as a major technological and political issue. An internal AEC report appraised the question in stark terms in April 1974: "The potential harm to the public from the explosion of an illicitly made nuclear weapon is greater than that from any plausible power plant accident, including one which involves a core meltdown." 1

Consideration of appropriate means to protect nuclear plants and materials intensified an already bitter national debate over nuclear power during the 1970s. Eventually the uproar over "safeguards," which was the term applied to the protection of nuclear plants from sabotage and [End Page 107] nuclear materials from theft, resulted in tightened regulations imposed by the AEC and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The safeguards issue added a new dimension to the debate over the risks of nuclear power. Risk analysis was a fledgling enterprise; a major project sponsored by the AEC and the NRC during the 1970s to assess the risks of reactor accidents, for example, fed rather than eased controversy over that question. Attempting to evaluate the risks of nuclear sabotage or terrorist acquisition of nuclear materials was even more problematical. No matter what the level of risk might be, however, it was apparent that the potential consequences were so great that the issue of safeguards had to be carefully and thoroughly addressed. The AEC and the NRC sought to provide suitable protection against a terrorist threat, but with little experience on which to draw and limited knowledge about the nature or the magnitude of the risks, their approach was necessarily open to question. A series of regulations published by the two agencies between 1973 and 1979 failed to settle the safeguards issue and further inflamed the nuclear power controversy. 2

The AEC had briefly considered the question of safeguards in nuclear power reactors a short time after the 1954 Atomic Energy Act made possible the widespread commercial use of nuclear energy. The AEC's regulatory staff drafted a rule on safeguarding "special nuclear materials" that it presented to the commissioners, who made the final decisions on approving regulations, in early 1955. "Special nuclear materials" meant plutonium or the isotopes uranium 233 or uranium 238 enriched in uranium 233 or uranium 235 that could be used, in different forms and levels of enrichment, to fuel both nuclear reactors and weapons. The question of safeguarding the special nuclear materials that the AEC made available to private industry generated considerable discussion when the staff prepared its first regulations for the commercial use of nuclear energy. Harold L. Price, the director of the regulatory staff, told the commissioners that rather than imposing detailed safeguards and accountability procedures, the AEC could [End Page 108] depend on the intrinsic monetary value of special nuclear material to ensure that licensees would guard it carefully. 3

The regulation on safeguards that the commission approved in April 1955 specified that licensees would be assessed a heavy fee for the loss or damage of special nuclear materials they leased from the AEC. They were required to keep records on their inventory, inform the AEC...