Preventing a nuclear terrorist version of Fukushima

By Kenneth N. Luongo | April 8, 2011

In a rare accord reached on March 25, the European Union decided to conduct safety “stress tests” on all of its 143 nuclear reactors. Akin to earlier stress tests that evaluated whether major banks were robust enough to withstand adverse economic conditions in the aftermath of the global financial collapse, the nuclear safety stress tests will assess the ability of reactors to withstand events such as those that devastated Fukushima.

Global leaders should not wait for a nuclear terrorist version of Fukushima before expanding stress testing to include assessments of the security of nuclear materials that could be used in a terrorist attack. The threat of nuclear terrorism includes the possibility of a deliberate attack on a nuclear reactor or the detonation of an improvised nuclear device. In the case of a weapon, the key objective is to protect the global stockpile of fissile materials from terrorist exploitation. Strenuous evaluations of the security of these nuclear materials, wherever they may be stored around the globe, would result in better defenses against the terrorist threat.

In either case — nuclear safety or nuclear security — the challenge is the same: ensuring maximum protection of nuclear facilities and materials to prevent a crisis that would undermine global well-being, and would not be limited by national borders.

Setting a precedent. The 27 EU nations instructed their national regulators to conduct safety stress tests based on commonly agreed criteria and then report back publicly on the results. Although each government will evaluate the grades and make its own decision about how to further improve nuclear safety — and whether to allow reactors to continue operating — the EU decision set a very important precedent because it overrode national sovereignty barriers and recognized the need to protect all nations from the effects of a nuclear crisis. “It is in the interests of all to have one common denominator in terms of safety checks,” said EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger.

The plan is to have European Commission experts define stress-test criteria in collaboration with national regulators, and to publicly announce the criteria in May. The assessments are intended to be comprehensive and likely will evaluate the vulnerability of the reactors and their cooling systems to earthquakes, floods, and power outages. Some experts also want to look at the vulnerability of nuclear plants to airplane crashes and cyber and terrorist attacks, but others are resistant to including these benchmarks. Excluding these criteria would call into question the comprehensiveness of the evaluations. Some in the European Commission would like the assessments to be made by multinational teams, which would further enhance the credibility of the process.

The stress tests will probably begin in the second half of this year, with the results to be released by the end of the year. On the heels of the EU decision, Russia and India have also stated that they will perform nuclear safety stress tests.

Improving nuclear security. At the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington last year, 47 countries and three international organizations agreed to take steps to improve the security of nuclear materials. But much of what was agreed to was the continuation of activities that are already underway, rather than expanding and strengthening the existing regime with new initiatives. The underlying rationale was that if nations ratified existing conventions and participated in ongoing initiatives, or worked over the long term to limit fissile material use, then the nuclear terrorist threat could be controlled. These are assumptions that should be seriously re-evaluated.

Fukushima has vividly shown that relying on past assumptions and probabilities of disaster can have tragic and expensive results. The cost of compensating victims of the Japanese nuclear disaster alone has been estimated at $12 to $120 billion. By contrast, the US and its partners currently spend less than $2 billion per year to help protect nuclear materials around the globe.

Now is the time to perform global security evaluations, before disaster strikes. The challenge is to motivate governments to act preventively and to overcome sovereignty and national-security concerns, so that all nations can move toward a baseline standard for nuclear materials security. This would allow for better assessments of security across borders, and greater international confidence.

Currently, there is no uniformity in nuclear material security. Each country does it differently — informed by the recommendations of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as international conventions and national regulations and laws. As a result, there has been resistance to standardization of the security system, and to transparency in reporting on security methods and their effectiveness.

An opportunity in Seoul. The 2012 Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul offers a chance to get ahead of the potential nuclear terrorist threat and implement improvements that would significantly decrease the likelihood that terrorists would construct and use an improvised nuclear weapon. The participating nations and international organizations could — as a group, just like the EU, or as a subgroup of willing nations — agree to create criteria for nuclear material security stress tests. These nations could either agree to perform the tests in advance of the upcoming summit, reporting the results in Seoul; or they could agree at the Summit to perform the tests and then report back afterward. As with the safety stress tests, there likely will be considerable wrangling over the specific criteria, but lowest-common-denominator approaches should be rejected in favor of stringency.

There are, however, two significant differences between nuclear safety stress testing and nuclear security testing. First, nuclear safety has always had a more developed culture and detailed regulatory system than nuclear material security. In part, this is a legacy of the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. But it is also because safety is understood to be a cost of doing business in the nuclear power industry: Reactors cannot be built and operated unless they meet specific safety criteria. Nuclear material security does not have the same history, in part because governments controlled the most dangerous materials — plutonium and highly enriched uranium — in the early years of the nuclear age. Today, however, about half of the total stockpile of these materials is in civilian use and storage. As with nuclear safety, the security of these materials should be considered an essential operating cost, not an afterthought.

Second, unlike safety test results, some security stress test results should not be made publicly available. No one wants to provide potential nuclear terrorists with a road map of flaws in the system. But a report on the overall results of the evaluation, as well as what steps will be taken to improve security, should be made public.

We have seen what a tsunami can do to reactors, but terrorists who would like to use nuclear materials in the ultimate weapon pose an even greater danger. The nuclear safety stress tests planned for the EU and other countries set an excellent precedent for performing similar assessments on the security of nuclear materials around the globe. The Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea next year provides both an opportunity and an obligation to conduct these tests. Their results could significantly strengthen global defenses against a nuclear terrorist version of Fukushima.

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