Security commitments for the 21st century

29 March 2017

As more countries look to adopt nuclear power, governments and international organisations must adapt to address evolving security challenges. By Stylianos Chatzidakis

Despite the Fukushima accident, projections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggest that nuclear energy will grow globally in all scenarios [1]. More than 60 reactors are under construction in 15 different countries, and more than 20 countries have informed the IAEA that they have an interest in launching nuclear energy programmes [2].

However, expansion of nuclear energy will unavoidably create increased pressure to ensure that nuclear materials remain secure. Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin addressed the matter in their 2005 Bratislava accord [3], and national leaders pledged their cooperation to this end during the recent Nuclear Security Summits at President Obama’s initiative [5]. Prevention

of nuclear terror has been recognised as one of the National Academy of Engineering’s ‘Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century,’ [6].

A notable example that accentuates the urgency of this challenge is Al-Qaeda’s repeated attempts to buy stolen nuclear material, demonstrating their continuing desire for nuclear capability [7]. Similarly, A. Q. Khan’s nuclear trading network revealed a stunning operation to bypass international controls on the dissemination of nuclear weapons technology [8]. With help from renegade professionals, terrorists might even build a powerful nuclear device. Countries that seek to reduce weapons stockpiles by half over the next few years must close or convert facilities at hundreds of nuclear sites and eliminate thousands of jobs [9, 10].

As more countries move to expand their reactor capacities, competition for nuclear fuel supply is also increasing. The new threat of cyberterrorism is also on the rise, the implications of which continue to be realised. It is apparent that the challenging task of maintaining a strong commitment to nuclear security remains stronger than ever.

Addressing these concerns requires commitment at an international level to strengthen nonproliferation and develop new safeguards technologies. The IAEA is the cornerstone of five main international institutions established to implement the nonproliferation regime, and it plays a critical role in securing nuclear materials and promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy around the world. The IAEA’s influential voice encourages world leaders to commit and catalyses greater action to address the challenges of the international expansion of nuclear energy. These challenges can be implemented by maintaining the commitment to:

  • continue developing human resources through workshops, and exchange of best practices;
  • continue efforts to ratify international treaties and conventions such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty [11], the Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material [12] and the International Convention on the Suppression of the Acts of Nuclear Terrorism [13];
  • enhance education through academic and professional exchange opportunities;
  • build regulatory capacity through the exchange of regulatory experience; and
  • strengthen export controls through commercial nuclear trade, research, and technology exchanges between countries.

The recent US-Vietnam Civil Nuclear Energy Cooperation Agreement [14] opened the door to nuclear trade between the two countries. It is an example of how such efforts can encourage cooperation and strengthen nuclear security around the world. The recently established International Conference on Nuclear Security is also a positive step to sustain international attention and momentum.

Need for skills

Expansion of nuclear power in new regions with limited technical experience is a concern for nuclear security. People with
the appropriate skills and knowledge are needed. Only a few universities have courses on nuclear nonproliferation, and even fewer on nuclear forensics. The journal Nature [15] highlighted that international collaboration and concerted action is required to build nuclear expertise for treaty verification.

The recent Iranian deal is a powerful example of the in-depth knowledge needed to address such complicated political and scientific issues. A worldwide coalition of governments, universities, national laboratories and industry experts can
provide skilled nuclear professionals to the IAEA to strengthen its role. The US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was among the first to recognise this need and has recently established multimillion dollar multi-year contracts to engage universities, national laboratories, and industry partners in this effort [16]. This has led to the development of three research consortia: the Consortium for Verification Technology (CVT), the Consortium for Nonproliferation Enabling Capabilities (CNEC), and the Nuclear Science and Security Consortium (NSSC). These consortia are led by top tier universities, and they focus on educating and training the next generation of nuclear engineers and security experts. There is also a strong emphasis on developing undergraduate and graduate courses in nuclear nonproliferation and nuclear forensics. Similar actions and efforts must be promoted and adapted worldwide.

Fuel cycle considerations

As the deployed fuel cycle is built on enriched uranium fuel, proliferation concerns associated with enrichment and reprocessing technologies must be addressed. One option is the use of alternative nuclear fuel cycles and recycling. This would allow production of ultra-high burn-up fuels and would create wasteforms that pose far less long-term concerns. This option presents a central tradeoff: the more fuel is recycled, the better its wasteform in terms of volume and long-lived actinides reduction. However, more separation steps increase the technical challenges.

Another option is multinational ownership and management of fuel supply. If the system is well designed, it would make it more difficult for a single state to divert expertise for the development of a clandestine plant. In his 2005 Nobel Lecture, IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei proposed a novel enrichment and reprocessing fuel cycle based on multinational control [17,18]. In this approach, a plant is owned by several countries or by an international institution, and its location is designated as extra-territorial as with many international organisations. This approach would provide greater transparency into plant operations. On the other hand, a multinational approach would require rigorous technology protection. Access to sensitive technologies must be limited to staff members from countries that already possess such technology, and appropriate clearance and screening would be required. Although a lot of work remains in this direction, the IAEA Low Enriched Uranium Storage Facility located in Kazakhstan and scheduled to be ready by 2017 is a significant milestone [19].

New technologies

Initiatives toward cost-effective, low proliferation risk technologies would promote nuclear energy and minimise risks
of nuclear proliferation. In this effort, the roles of industry and regulatory bodies are critical in developing replacement strategies and overcoming deployment barriers for new nuclear reactors. Although there is no reason to expect the dominance of light water reactors to end in the foreseeable future, new designs that differ significantly from the large nuclear power plants now in operation will employ advanced technologies to improve performance beyond what is currently attainable. Progress in this direction includes the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Generation IV International Forum [19,20] coordinated research on six reactor types and the IAEA-based International Project on Innovative Nuclear Reactors and Fuel Cycles [21], which is focused on novel methodologies and generic technical challenges. In addition, disruptive technologies based on open, distributive, and participatory models can have exponential growth. For example, small modular reactors (SMRs) are versatile, flexible, easy to construct and operate, have the potential to achieve lower proliferation risks, and they offer simplified construction and improved efficiency [22].

Cyber security

A new era of warfare began when the first attack was launched using a computer virus called Stuxnet against a nuclear installation. The result was a sabotage that altered the speed of the centrifuges with nothing more than a long string of computer code without operators ever noticing [23]. Today, cybercriminals are highly professional and organised, and they have progressed from simply stealing data to attacking critical infrastructure. More than 250,000 pieces of new malware are created daily, and they infect more than 30,000 websites every day. Unlike physical weapons, cyberweapons are not destroyed after an attack. The actual source code of Stuxnet can still be downloaded, and reverse engineered to act against other critical infrastructures.

Under IAEA’s guidance, nuclear facilities must prioritise protection against cyber threats and determine the potential consequences. Digital systems must be characterised and routinely tested, just as safety features are tested, and a strong security culture must be implemented in the same manner that a safety culture is executed. A clear legal framework for protection of digital systems—preferably at an international level with stress tests and exercises, regulations and licensing requirements—is needed for all nuclear facilities and supporting infrastructure.

Public opinion

Finally, reversing public mistrust may be the most challenging task. Many studies reveal a widespread belief that the institutions managing nuclear power are not trustworthy and tend to be secretive. A 2010 Eurobarometer survey by the European Commission found that only 40% of Europeans trusted the nuclear industry. Radioactive waste is regarded with even greater dread than climate change [24].

The public is continuously reminded of the dangers of nuclear energy. If the word “nuclear” is typed into popular internet search engines like Google, one of the first image that comes up is that of an atomic explosion. Positive traits of nuclear energy are rarely advertised or mentioned. Words with strong emotional content are used by the opponents of nuclear energy such as evil, toxic, and deadly allowing emotion and fear, instead of facts, to affect our thinking and drive public policy [25]. Actions and efforts to reach out to the public must emphasise that, although nuclear power and nuclear weapons come from the same root, they have taken very different paths and have very different applications and results. A challenge is to promote more positive images about nuclear energy to dispel pervasive myths. When a member of the public thinks of nuclear energy, the image that comes to mind should not be that of the mushroom cloud, but rather that of a nuclear reactor core with the beautiful Cerenkov blue light. 

Maintaining the commitment

The 2016 Nuclear Security Summit marked the end of a six-year effort. To ensure that its momentum is not lost, a path forward must be defined, and a continuous mechanism must be established to evaluate progress. The IAEA and other organisations responsible for nuclear security must work together to remove the barriers associated with the international expansion of nuclear energy while addressing the associated nuclear security challenges.

Nuclear terrorism and weapons proliferation, nuclear fuel cycle and supply, cybersecurity, and public awareness are
all challenges requiring immediate action. It is imperative that governments and organisations clearly define their visions
for the future of nuclear security, maintain their commitments, build the necessary infrastructure, and ensure that our educational systems provide individuals with the appropriate skills. The big question is, what happens next? Is it possible to provide universal energy access to tens or more countries without also spreading the threat of nuclear weapons? 

References: References have been omitted due to space constraints, but are available on 

About the author: Stylianos Chatzidakis is an R&D Associate – Weinberg Fellow at Oak Ridge National Laboratory 


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