Nuclear security: The significance of Sharif Mobley

Charles Faddis Contributor
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Sharif Mobley is a New Jersey native arrested in early March in Yemen along with a number of other suspect members of al-Qaida as part of ongoing security operations in that nation. Prior to his departure for the Middle East in 2008 Sharif was also employed inside of at least five separate nuclear power plants in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland over a six-year period.

Since word broke of Sharif’s arrest, and subsequent attempt to shoot his way out of confinement in a Yemeni hospital, there have been a number of official government and industry statements regarding the significance of Sharif’s employment at nuclear power facilities. All of these have been designed to minimize the importance of this development and to reassure the public that our nuclear power plants are safe.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Sharif did only “grunt work” as a “laborer” at the plants where he was employed. The NRC says he had no access to “nuclear fuel” and was not allowed access to “control rooms.” The governor’s office in New Jersey issued a statement saying that Sharif “was not believed to have breached security at the plants.” A law enforcement official was quoted as saying that authorities had found no connection between Sharif’s employment in nuclear power plants and his time in Yemen.

All of these statements may, strictly speaking, be accurate and true.

They are also irrelevant.

The issue here is not whether or not Sharif was employed inside of nuclear power plants as part of some multi-year, highly complex al-Qaida attempt to penetrate our nuclear industry. Such an operation might not be beyond the realm of possibility given the complexity of the double-agent operation run by al-Qaida against the CIA by the Khost suicide bomber, but it is unlikely. The issue is that regardless of how and why he acquired the knowledge he possesses on nuclear power plants today, Sharif has it and by this point, we must presume that he has passed on that information to other members of al-Qaida and that organization is capable of exploiting that information.

Sharif may be in the custody of friendly security forces. We have no idea to whom his information has been disseminated.

Whether or not he ever entered a control room or got access to nuclear fuel is also of no import. Neither one of those things is necessary to cause a meltdown in an active nuclear reactor.

A nuclear reactor that is up and operating cannot simply be switched off and considered safe. Even if it is shut down fully, the heat built up in the reactor is so massive that cooling water must continue to circulate through the plant’s systems for days before the reactor is going to be in what is referred to as a cold shutdown state. If the cooling system is destroyed or disrupted before this takes place, a meltdown of the radioactive core is likely to occur resulting in a massive release of highly radioactive isotopes. In fact, the partial meltdown, which happened at Three Mile Island in 1979, occurred after that reactor had been shut down and precisely because of a problem with the cooling system.

To damage or destroy the cooling system in a nuclear reactor, you do not have to get access to the nuclear fuel, enter the control room or breach the concrete containment shell, which surrounds the reactors. Most of the key components of the cooling system, pumps, water intakes, etc, are outside of the containment and not hardened. If you can get a car bomb or a team with satchel charges in proximity to these components, you can shut off the flow of cooling water to the reactor and physics will take care of the rest.

In attempting to put together a plan for such a terrorist operation, the key information required by any attack team would be data on perimeter security forces and security measures: the numbers of guards, their armament, procedures at entry gates, locations of guard posts, etc. All of this information and much more would be readily available to someone moving in and out of a facility everyday, even a “grunt” and a “laborer.”

In short, to someone attempting to plan an attack on a nuclear power plant, Sharif would be a godsend.

We have neglected the security of our nuclear power plants for many years, entrusting their security to poorly trained and poorly equipped private security guard forces. We have done this despite intelligence dating back at least to 2001 concerning al-Qaida’s interest in an attack on such facilities. We must now presume not only that al-Qaida wants to stage such an attack but that they are in possession of much of the tactical data they would need to successfully plan and execute such an attack. We need to absorb the import of that development, understand the true significance of Sharif Mobley and move promptly to preempt any planned operations.

Charles Faddis served 20 years in the Central Intelligence Agency as an operations officer, holding positions as a department chief at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center in Washington, D.C., and as a chief of station in the Middle East. He is the author of the new book “Willful Neglect“ (March 2010, Lyons Press).