Beyond Control: Our Loosening Grasp on Nuclear Security

IAEA director

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano at the
July 2013 IAEA Nuclear Security Conference

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To most, nuclear security means Iran and North Korea. While these do present global security threats, the intersection of many under-discussed components of nuclear power, such as nuclear waste, reprocessing, and more power plants in the developing world, has the ability to cause major global crisis if not immediately prepared for by military and civilian leaders.


In early July, the UN International Atomic Energy Agency concluded a week long ministerial conference on nuclear security where analysts found, Bloomberg’s Jonathan Tirone reported, “Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, whose 2011 meltdowns dislocated 160,000 people, may provide a new blueprint for terrorists seeking to inflict mass disruption.”


The nuclear industry is burgeoning worldwide. Some 100 new reactors have been proposed to be constructed in coming years, bringing the world total near 600 reactors. This proliferation of nuclear power will tip the balance so the security risks outweigh the benefits and place the world’s people in harm’s way.

The big business opportunities that go with plant construction and the prestige that comes with being a nuclear power generator cause companies and countries to gloss over potential disaster and proliferation risks.

Many of these new plants will be in developing countries — first-time owners of nuclear power with relatively unstable governments, uncertain security capacities, and higher percentages of unskilled labor. Developed countries — with strong regulatory frameworks, good training programs, and competent engineers, managers, and scientists — have proven several times over that their plants are susceptible to human error or natural disaster. To put it differently, how much do we trust in the disaster response teams of the developing world?

The risks associated with more fissile material in less stable hands are obvious. Terrorists can more easily obtain the material from weaker governments and its greater availability will inevitably lead to less oversight and greater chance of it falling into the wrong hands. Nuclear power plants themselves are also a prime target for terrorists. With more plants under less security, the likelihood of an attack goes up.

All of these risks are surely adequately discussed within the government; they are clear dangers and part of the traditional proliferation conversation.

The security risk I consider greatest, and one that will only multiply as new plants come online, is that presented by spent fuel. Since the inception of nuclear power, governments have faced the conundrum of nuclear waste: no one can find a politically and environmentally sound solution of where to dispose of the highly radioactive material that the electricity-generating process produces. In the United States, much of this highly radioactive material is cooling in pools at the plants or in offsite storage warehouses. Why these pools have not been major terrorist targets remains a mystery.

Fuel reprocessing, which Japan hopes to resume, does not solve the problem and only increases the chance of attack or theft through the shipping of radioactive materials between countries (much of Japan’s radioactive material that it would reprocess is held in Europe) and by creating additional plutonium.

The best options for waste disposal are dry casks or burial deep underground. While burying our nuclear fuel is a savvy short term political maneuver, passing our issues onto future generations is highly irresponsible and no real solution at all. Again, if the United States and Europe are still bogged down with the dilemma of waste disposal, will the inchoate democracies of the developing world be able to do better?

There is still a certain awe and mystery shrouding the true impact of nuclear power and a conviction that the short term economic and energy benefits are worthwhile. The main lesson I’ve taken from the Fukushima accident is the permanence of our current decisions. Any nuclear accident, whether through human error, natural disaster, or terrorist attack, will leave us with radiation and other health risks for a minimum of several hundred years. The nuclear issue we’ve constructed in the last 70 years will impact our society for hundreds of generations.

When will the United States and international communities recognize the irreversible nature of our actions and mistakes? Frankly, we have let the nuclear issue already get out of control.

Why haven’t world political leaders yet asked this simple question?

In democratic system, the military leaders are supposed to be independent from the views of short term of political party line or economic and energy benefits, instead focused solely on national and international security issues. As a military leader, the general is always walking on a tightrope between being a winner or a loser, leading in war and peace. They carry their nation’s destiny on their shoulders. It is a time for military leaders to look at the permanence of our current decisions.

Sir Brian Flowers, a prominent British nuclear physicist, pointed out that if nuclear power plants had been built and deployed in Europe before WWII, then large parts of Europe would be uninhabitable today because of conventional warfare and conventional sabotage directed against those nuclear plants.

An insufficient power supply to the plant, whether through terrorism, natural disaster, or human error, would deliver the same end.

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