Mon, Mar 30, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Working together to fight issues of nuclear security

Lessons learnt from the Fukushima disaster can help governments and industry combat the threat of nuclear terrorism

By Des Browne and Igor S. Ivanov

Four years ago, a devastating tsunami crashed into the coast of Japan. Fifteen-meter waves breached the seawall of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, cutting off its emergency power supply and disabling its cooling systems.

The nuclear accident was the worst since the meltdown of the Chernobyl power plant in 1986. Investigators concluded that one of the underlying causes was complacency: Those in charge of the facility believed that their safety systems were robust, and there was no effective independent oversight.

The disaster in Japan has spurred reforms in the field of nuclear safety. However, when it comes to nuclear security, complacency remains a major problem. We must not wait until tragedy strikes to do something about it.

Today, well over 1.5 million kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium — key ingredients for nuclear weapons — are dispersed across hundreds of facilities in 25 countries. Some are poorly secured. Yet enough nuclear material to fill a small bag of sugar is all it takes to construct a device with the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of people and inflict billions of dollars in damage.

Much has been done to improve security at nuclear facilities in recent years, but governments must do more to protect their citizens from the risks of catastrophic nuclear terrorism. The lessons from the Fukushima crisis can serve as a useful guide for reform.

For starters, governments and industry must treat nuclear security as a process of continuous improvement and work to keep pace with evolving threats and challenges. A facility considered secure 20 years ago might now be vulnerable to a cyberattack that bypasses its security systems or confounds efforts to keep track of its nuclear material.

Well-organized and well-financed non-state groups, like the Islamic State, may employ new tactics, technologies and capabilities to steal nuclear materials. Governments must therefore consistently evaluate evolving technologies and threats so that security systems designed to protect nuclear materials stay ahead of the capabilities of those who would seek to steal them.

Second, governments and industry should make sure that security culture, like safety culture, becomes an integral part of every nuclear facility’s operations. As General Eugene Habiger, a former commander-in-chief of the US Strategic Command who was the US Department of Energy’s “security czar,” once put it: “Good security is 20 percent equipment and 80 percent people.”

Governments and industry should work together to nurture a strong culture of security. Each and every employee at a nuclear facility — from guards to scientists to senior staff — must view the security of nuclear materials as an essential part of their jobs.

Third, governments must regularly review security systems at nuclear facilities. It is not sufficient for nuclear operators to say that the state of security in their facilities is “good enough.” Effective oversight can root out complacency.

Fukushima exposed the need for regulators to perform regular stress tests, evaluating the ability of nuclear facilities to stand up to various contingencies affecting their safety. Regulators should conduct similar evaluations aimed specifically at assessing facilities’ ability to withstand security threats, including theft by knowledgeable insiders.

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