By Dr. Paul Dorfman, Chair, Nuclear Consulting Group
As the established nuclear order gradually breaks apart and co-operative security increasingly takes a back seat to poorly defined competition, risk of military attack on nuclear infrastructure is evolving.
Perhaps unbelievably, given the catastrophic risk, even under the Geneva Convention, attack on an operating nuclear power plant (NPP) is up for grabs. Article 56 of the Protocol states that ‘special protection against attack shall cease for a nuclear electrical generating station if it provides electric power in regular, significant and direct support of military operations’.
Whilst the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seems concerned about the potential for malicious attack, there’s still no direct IAEA or international regulations for operating NPPs in a conflict zone. This could be because, before Zaporizhzhia, the world has turned a blind eye to this very obvious risk – the question remains why?
And Small Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMRs), the new best hope for fissile fuel, is likely to make the problem worse. SMR’s smaller operational footprint present significant challenges for the physical protection of the target. The multiple, diverse, active safety systems needed to try to secure any NPP seem incompatible with the stripped-down design of SMRs, whose design couples reactor core and containment – with potentially severe negative security consequences.
All this is being played out in real time in Ukraine. According to the President of Ukraine’s Energoatom, Zaporizhzhia NPP is heavily mined by the Russian invading forces. Meanwhile, the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety warns that the NPP’s high-level radiation spent fuel cooling is in danger of collapse due to the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam and the draining of its reservoir.
Zaporizhzhia is not the first time that civil nuclear infrastructure has been caught in the crosshairs of military conflict. Reactors in Iran, Iraq and Syria have been attacked, thankfully before loading with nuclear fuel. However, sets of operating NPPs are now located in or near conflict zones – including UAE, India, Pakistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, North and South Korea. As the UK Royal United Services Institute says, it is likely that Zaporizhzhia will not be the last time a civil NPP comes under fire. And direct strike to a reactor is not the only risk. High-level radiation spent reactor fuel is extremely hot and needs constant cooling to avoid nuclear meltdown. This involves pumping cold water into the reactor circuitry, then removing the heated water. If power is lost, the pumps stop operating, water circulation stops, and the reactor core fuel melts. This constant supply of coolant is needed even when reactors are in cold shutdown. Also, due to radiolysis of the water in the reactor, hydrogen is produced and must be removed via turbines which need a constant supply of power. If these turbines stop operating, gas build-up leads to a hydrogen explosion, as seen at Fukushima.
Civil nuclear may not be interested in war, but war is interested in civil nuclear
Shifting power relations, regional and international rivalries lead to instability, security threats and patterns of violence. Here, interactions between soft power (ideological proxies) and military power play a crucial role in shaping the civil nuclear security landscape. Although deeply unfortunate; conflict, weapons proliferation and instability may increase. Under more hostile circumstances, lethal attack systems will include evermore sophisticated capabilities.
State and non-state actors are now acquiring capabilities that previously belonged only to larger countries. Advances in specific technologies and manufacturing are broadening access to ranging precision-strike capabilities. The current rapid pace of technological evolution means that non-aligned states, non-state and ‘bad actors’ are pursuing increasingly complex military capabilities.
Missile and drone threat
Missile threat has grown, with the high cost of missile interception making defense less able to cope with combined missile attacks. Advanced missiles can be challenging targets for air defense systems as they fly at low altitudes to stay below radar’s line of sight and can use terrain features to hide from radar. Land attack missiles can fly circuitous routes to the target, avoiding radar and air defense installations. A salvo of missiles can be launched to approach a target simultaneously from different directions, potentially overwhelming air defenses. Modern missile technology offers the means for developing precision strike capabilities. Once built, missiles require relatively little maintenance and a few trained personnel to operate and deploy. Highly accurate guidance systems can place a missile within a few feet of a target when armed with conventional warheads. A salvo of missiles can be launched to approach a target simultaneously from different directions, potentially overwhelming air defenses. Some missiles have incorporated stealth features to make them less visible to radars and infrared detectors.
Missile improvement means that short and medium-range missiles can deliver warheads with an accuracy range in the tens of meters. The strike accuracy of the missile and drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s largest oil facility in 2019 was startling. Of nineteen weapons used, all but two scored direct hits – evidencing a vastly improved high-precision. That military operation circumvented defenses, including Patriot missile defense systems – each of which cost in the region of $1 billion. Shooting a moving target out of the sky is fundamentally difficult, requiring considerable speed and accuracy.
US Missile Defence Reviews recognize that missile threat is markedly more dangerous than in years past, noting that potential adversaries are investing substantially in missile capabilities by increasing existing missile systems, adding new types of missile capabilities to their arsenals, and integrating offensive missiles ever more thoroughly into military exercises and war planning. Social and political change and the increasing influence of non-state and ‘bad actors’ significantly complicates risk factors.
The use of drone systems among non-state actors and terrorist organizations has also rapidly increased in the last few years. Some groups have quickly adapted, increasing their capacity and sophistication. The reason for this widespread deployment is the relatively low cost of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. As long as UAV strikes remain successful, non-state actors will take increasing advantage of this technology, transitioning to new imitation and adaptation.
The greater the nuclear infrastructure burden, the greater the attack risk. Recent events in Ukraine and elsewhere underline this reality. For many years, I and others have made a point of not discussing this publicly, for fear of encouraging bad actors – but events have overtaken us. Whether we turn a blind eye or not, these significant risks remain. It is time to accept the fact that civil reactors and associated spent fuel, high and medium level radioactive waste stores are on the front-line of an increasingly unstable world – and all that implies for the nuclear arena.
About the Author:
Dr. Paul Dorfman is the Chair of the Nuclear Consulting Group, a Visiting Fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) of the University of Sussex, UK, a Member of the Irish Government’s Radiation Protection Advisory Committee and a Former Advisor to UK Ministry of Defence Nuclear Submarine Dismantling Project.
Header Image: Sizewell B Nuclear Power Plant on the Suffolk coast, UK ©Westinghouse Electric Company