by Will Knight / NewScientist.com News Service –
LONDON (January 12, 2004) — Clouds of artificial fog could be used to defend nuclear power stations against airborne terrorist attacks under proposals currently being considered in Germany.
A spokeswoman at Germany’s Federal Environment Ministry confirmed that the companies that operate the country’s 18 nuclear power stations are assessing the installation of artificial fog machines as a defence against suicide attacks from the air, alongside other possibilities.
Under the proposal, “a nuclear power plant under attack is surrounded within seconds by an artificial, dense wall of fog,” reads a statement from the ministry. Fog or smoke would disguise a power station’s location from the air. Although radar can penetrate fog, commercial aircraft are not fitted with radar systems capable of identifying structures on the ground.
Gone with the Wind
However, some experts say defending a nuclear plant with fog or smoke would require overcoming numerous problems, including the weather. “The big thing is wind,” says Ben Eden, managing director of Pea Soup, a UK-based company that makes fog and smoke machines. “If it’s really windy they would have lost already.”
Eden adds that hiding a large building would require a number of mobile fog or smoke machines, each of which would take up to 10 minutes to start. “It could certainly hide the building, but there are many factors,” he told New Scientist.
Chris Foss, of the industry publication Jane’s Defence Weekly, also questions the viability of such a defence. “You’re going to need smoke that covers a large area very quickly,” he says. “Also, what happens to your own people on the ground?”
A more feasible system might be to shoot down incoming aircraft using missile defence systems installed at nuclear plants, says Foss, as is being considered in the US. But this would require a huge investment of manpower, he says.
Smoke and Mirrors
The German proposals are a response to a report commissioned by the country’s environment ministry shortly after the terrorist attacks in the US on 11 September 2001. That concluded Germany’s power stations are inadequately protected against attack from the air.
The report revealed that even a small jet liner could cause enough damage to Germany’s older plants to result in a disastrous dispersal of radioactive material. Newer plants could be similarly damaged by a large passenger jet, it concluded.
The ministry spokeswoman told New Scientist that a decision on which defensive measures will be implemented is expected within months.
Using smoke to mask a target is routinely used in military conflicts. For example, in 2003 the Iraqi army set alight reservoirs of oil in an attempt to hide targets inside Baghdad from US and allied bombers. However, this proved ineffective against missiles using global positioning system (GPS) satellites to navigate.
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