Nuclear power undermines nuclear security

The mushroom cloud above Nagasaki, 9th August 1945. The 'Fat Man' bomb contained just 6.2kg of plutonium 239 and delivered a 21 kt blast. Photo: Charles Levy / Wikimedia Commons.
The mushroom cloud above Nagasaki, 9th August 1945. The 'Fat Man' bomb contained just 6.2kg of plutonium 239 and delivered a 21 kt blast. Photo: Charles Levy / Wikimedia Commons.
Opponents of nuclear power rightly focus on issues of cost, operational danger and waste disposal, writes David Lowry. But they should not forget the towering 'elephant in the room' - nuclear security and the risk of proliferation and terrorist attacks.
Security should come first - not as an afterthought. We should support as much nuclear power as is consistent with international security; not as much security as the spread of nuclear power will allow.

This week over 150 countries began a two week meeting at the United Nations in New York, preparing for the latest five-yearly review conference of the 190-member state Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

The conference will no doubt split between the vast majority of non-nuclear weapons states and the 'Permanent-Five' nuclear WMD possessor states - UK, US, France, China and Russia.

At issue will be the continual, chronic  lack of progress in nuclear disarmament by the nuclear WMD states - indeed, in the case of the USA in particular, its colossal program to modernise its nuclear arsenal.

However there is scope for common cause in one area: combatting nuclear terrorism. There's only one problem here - the nuclear WMD states are themselves among the least secure in their custody of nuclear materials. 

Nuclear power and nuclear security

This discussion will put the focus squarely on the 25 states that possess nuclear materials, most of them for civil nuclear programs for the generation of electricity.

Despite reassurances that these nuclear materials present little or no proliferation hazard, the reverse is the case. Nuclear security is the 'elephant in the room' of the nuclear power debate

The final communiquĂ© of the Global Nuclear Security Conference that was held last month in The Hague insisted that "measures to strengthen nuclear security will not hamper the rights of States to develop and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes."

Dr Victor Gilinsky, a former member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, noted in 2009 in his paper 'A call to resist the nuclear revival' (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 27 January 2009) that

"even so-called arms controllers fall over themselves trying to establish their bona fides by supporting nuclear energy development and devising painless proposals ... "

That mentality was in evidence at the NSS, just as it was at the IAEA nuclear security conference in Austria last July.

But sensibly Gilinsky advocates a reversal of priorities: "Security should come first - not as an afterthought. We should support as much nuclear power as is consistent with international security; not as much security as the spread of nuclear power will allow."

And if we adopt that approach, it can mean only one thing: zero nuclear power.

Hiroshima Report

At the start of this week, the Center for the Promotion of Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (CPDNP) at the Japan Institute for International Affairs in Hiroshima, Japan issued a 165 page report: 'Evaluation of Achievement in Nuclear Disarmament, Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Security: 2014'.

Security should come first - not as an afterthought. We should support as much nuclear power as is consistent with international security; not as much security as the spread of nuclear power will allow.

The section on nuclear security says the following:

  • "Firstly there is no legally binding, universal instrument as regards nuclear security. In this regard, United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 is expected to serve as a legally binding, universal instrument; however, as the report obligation of the resolution has not been fulfilled, it does not function as it is supposed to.
  • "Secondly, due to the sensitivity of nuclear security-related information, it is very difficult to obtain comprehensive information for the evaluation of the actual nuclear security status on a per country basis. Nuclear security-related information, particularly regarding threat assessment, a Design Basis Threat (DBT) ... 
    "physical protection systems for facilities and transport of nuclear and other radiological material, as well as the nuclear security plan of each state, is confidential information for counter-terrorism reasons and is shared only among a very limited group of people with 'need-to-know' status.
  • "Thirdly, the responsibility of the nuclear security of a state entirely rests with the individual state. In other words, nuclear security requirements need to be established based on national decisions and sovereignty. Each state decides what level of nuclear security requirements to impose in accordance with its own national threat assessment."

I agree with this summary of the problem. Let me be more concrete.

Sellafield - a nuclear security nightmare

In Britain, the biggest nuclear security problem is the huge nuclear facility at Sellafield, originally built in the early 1950 on England's northwest coast, in Cumbria, which is also home of the wonderful Lake District National Park.

Sellafield however is also the home of hundreds of decaying and decrepit building, many stores of liquid and solid radioactive waste, and, from a security perspective, most importantly, 111 tonnes of weapons - useable plutonium.

Let me give you that figure in another way. 111 tonnes is 111,000 kilogrammes. A nuclear bomb can be made with as little as 5 kilograms of plutonium - a lump about the size of a large orange.

Note: the 'Fat Man' nuclear bomb detonated above Nagasaki in August 1945, with a blast equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT, contained jut 6.2 kg of plutonium (see photo).

The Sellafield deer

And how well prepared are Sellafield's managers for the unexpected? Not very, as we can see from the story of the Sellafield deer.

As a result of a recent security review, the Sellafield management decided to strengthen the perimeter fence around the site. Unfortunately in doing so they unintentionally captured a small herd of wild deer.

But rather than releasing the corralled deer, they shot them, as the local newspaper, the Whitehaven News revealed early on 3rd April. Their headline ran: "Three deer shot dead as Sellafield carries out cull".

Now - if the deer could find themselves, un-noticed, on the wrong side of the security fence, what about people? The insecurity of the storage buildings for the waste products arising from operating nuclear power reactor is a a huge and as yet unsolved problem.

We are often told these stores are robust against terrorist attack. Well, have a look at this test demonstration in the photographs (above right), and judge for yourself just how secure any building can really be.

UK ministers are in 'cognitive dissonance'

In my paper 'The UK, the unintended proliferator' which I presented in February this year to a meeting of concerned NGO stakeholders hosted by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in London, I argued that I wanted to:

"demonstrate how ministers in the Coalition Government prozelytize one message of nonproliferation and increased counter terrorism measures to enhance nuclear security, while simultaneously taking forward a nuclear energy policy that utterly undermines this aim."

This nuclear energy policy includes:

  • the promotion of an expansion of new nuclear power plants in the UK;
  • the re-use of plutonium in MOX fuel, normalising the use of plutonium - the prime nuclear explosive material, in commercial nuclear fuel;
  • seeking to re-establish a global nuclear technology sales, nuclear services provision and nuclear material sales programme.

In some detail I argued that ministers are suffering from acute cognitive dissonance when pursuing their twin-track policies of nuclear promotion and nuclear controls. What do I mean by this?

"Social psychologists refer to cognitive dissonance as the presence of incongruent relations among cognitions (thought and understanding) that frequently results in excessive mental stress and discomfort. Ultimately, individuals who hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas and/or values frequently experience cognitive dissonance."

"This is a very dangerous condition for senior decision-makers when dealing with a technology that carries the twin dread-threat of a major accident and malevolent misuse by determined terrorists."

Nuclear materials states ranked for security

In early January, the respected Washington DC-based Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) published its latest annual report. The NTI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with a mission to strengthen global security by reducing the risk of use and preventing the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

It also works to build the trust, transparency, and security that are preconditions to the ultimate fulfillment of the Non-Proliferation Treaty's goals and ambitions.

As Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former IAEA secretary-general, said of NTI:

"The Nuclear Threat Initiative is a role model for me of a private-public partnership in issues of security and of survival ... NTI has been a trailblazer."

UK score on nuclear security: 11%

NTI publishes a table in its new report (see below) that ought to set the alarm bells ringing in DECC and across Whitehall. The NTI assessed teh nuclear security of 25 countries identified as having the nuclear materials capable of making nuclear nuclear WMDs. The UK ranked bottom with a score of just 11/100.

But the problem is clearly systemic. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, who also happen to be the 'Big Five' nuclear weapons states - the US, Russia, China, UK and France - all ranked 18th or worse out of 25, with scores of 34/100 or worse.

Intriguingly Iran - condemned by the US and other countries as representing a major nuclear proliferation hazard and punished by the Security Council with severe sanctions as a consequence - ranked 4th with a score of 89/100, putting the UNSC permanent members to shame.

'A grave sovereign responsibility'

"There is no question that securing nuclear materials is a grave, sovereign responsibility. At the same time, the threat is global, and all countries must work to reduce that threat."

That was the conclusion of the authoritative Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2014 Report, published in Washington DC, on 8 January this year.

Unfortunately far too many nuclear authorities and governments, notably the UK, are putting far too much effort into nuclear cheer-leading - and nowhere near enough into nuclear security.



Dr David Lowry is an environmental policy and research consultant.

This article is a revised version of a paper presented at the European Environment Foundation Convention of Environmental Laureates, Freiburg, Germany, 10-13 April 2014.

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Notes on the shaped charge test (see photos above):

  • These photographs are from: Raytheon, 2008. For additional, supporting information, see: Warwick, 2008.
  • The shaped-charge jet penetrated about 5.9 m into a steel-reinforced concrete block with a thickness of 6.1 m. Although penetration was incomplete, the block was largely destroyed, as shown. Compressive strength of the concrete was 870 bar.
  • The shaped charge had a diameter of 61 cm and contained 230 kg of high explosive. It was sized to fit inside the US Air Force's AGM-129 Advanced Cruise Missile.
  • My source is Dr Gordon Thompson, Director, Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge, Mass, USA - Comments on the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Waste Confidence Generic Environmental Impact Statement, Draft Report for Comment (September 2013).


Nuclear security - how the 25 countries score

In this table, countries are ranked from 1 to 25 in the first column, where 1 is the most secure, and 25 the least.

In the second column, scores are given based on a number of criteria, from 0 to 100 where 100 is the most secure.

The third column shows the change in score since 2013.

It is notable that the five main nuclear powers - the USA, Russia, China, UK and France - all score below 34/100, and rank 18th and below. the UK comes last as the least secure of all the nuclear materials nations.

=1 Argentina 100 +5
=1 Australia 100 +5
3 Uzbekistan 95 +5
4 Iran 89 -
=5 Belarus 84 -
=5 Poland 84 +6
7 Norway 83 -5
8 South Africa 79 +6
9 Italy 73 -
10 Switzerland 72 -
11 Canada 67 -
=12 Belgium 62 +6
=12 Germany 62 -
=12 Netherlands 62 -5
15 North Korea 60 -
16 Kazakhstan 57 -6
17 Israel 44 -
=18 China 34 -
=18 France 34 -
=20 Russia 23 -
=20 United States 23 -
=22 India 22 -
=22 Japan 22 -
=22 Pakistan 22 -
25 United Kingdom 11 -

Full UK scores across all security categories may be seen at on the NTI website.

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