Locked Down, in a Good Way: Nuclear Energy

Nuclear power is often-talked about, but how much do we really know about it? How is nuclear energy kept safe & secure? What measures are put in place to protect citizens today? And what measures need to be put in place tomorrow to ensure greater safety? With these questions in mind, I attempt to explore the ‘3S’ approach to nuclear energy: safety, security & safeguarding, and its implications for Europe.   

Francisco Parada

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If you’re not a big Simpsons fan, you may not think about nuclear energy too often.1 The Simpsons is the longest-running American sitcom and one of the most popular TV shows of the past three decades. But as the climate crisis becomes increasingly urgent, and governments are implored to take measures which reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, nuclear energy is becoming the subject of conversations in cabinets across the globe.

While Springfield’s Nuclear Power Plant2Springfield Nuclear Power Plant is the nuclear reactor where the main character, Homer, from The Simpsons works. The show often portrays the plant as unsafe and unguarded (in the title sequence, a uranium rod falls down Homer’s back). is dangerous, unstable, and poorly guarded, real nuclear energy sources are anything but. The nuclear industry – like others in the energy sphere – is very strictly regulated to avoid causing significant harm to people or the world.

Safety and security – friends forever?

In daily life, many people use the words safety and security interchangeably, but in the nuclear field the two terms have different meanings.

‘Nuclear safety’ refers to the activities performed to prevent an accident in a nuclear installation; including strategies in place and layers of protection to ensure consequences are minimal.

‘Nuclear security’ refers to protecting a facility from sabotage or burglary of nuclear or radioactive material, which could be used to develop a Radioactive Exposure Device (RED) or a Radioactive Dispersal Device (RDD).3In the past, extremist groups have expressed their desire to obtain radioactive material to create an RDD. While an RDD might not be considered a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD), it can still incur disruption, financial losses, and instill fear in society.

In basic terms, nuclear safety protects the people and environment from the possible harm of nuclear installations and activities, while nuclear security protects facilities and material from humans.

9/11 caused a paradigm shift in nuclear safety and security discussions. Security assessments were revised so that any threat of potential terrorist attacks on nuclear installations was to be properly assessed. However, these revisions also highlighted potential areas where safety and security may overlap and complement each other. Take safety assessments for example – systematic approaches which estimate the risks involved with a nuclear facility and its activity – can help identify security scenarios which may require extra attention.

On the flipside, safety and security may also hinder each other at times. From a nuclear security point of view, you might want to restrict access to certain areas of a nuclear installation to prevent sabotage or theft of nuclear and other radioactive material.  Such restrictions, though, could potentially delay swift action in case of a nuclear safety event.

Despite their differences, the bottom-line objective of nuclear safety and security is the same: protect people, society, and the environment from the effects of atomic radiation.

The Chernobyl or Fukushima Dai-chi accidents are the most well-known nuclear safety accidents, but there have also been several nuclear security events of note.4The 2020 IAEA Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB) published a fact sheet with updates on nuclear security events In 1995, a Chechen separatist group placed a 30-pound cesium container in a Moscow park. The material was not dispersed, and there were no health or environmental consequences due to the event. In this case, the Chechen guerrillas aimed to demonstrate the fate Russia could suffer if the Chechen conflict did not end, according to Mr. Basayev [Chechnya’s best-known rebel leader].5Ibid.

In China in 2002, a disgruntled employee used Ir-192 in an attempt to assassinate his colleague. As a result, 74 people suffered from radiation sickness and required medical attention.6Streeper, C., LA-UR 07-3686 Diversions of Radioactive Material and the Difficulties in Case Tracking. http://osrp.lanl.gov/Documents/LAURS_Documents%20Page/LAUR-07-3686.pdf Halfway across the world in the same year, a group of Mexican hospital personnel poured radioactive mud into a coffee machine, aiming to harm a group of coworkers who belonged to a different internal political group.7Comisión Nacional de Seguridad Nuclear y Salvaguardias, “Folio de solicitud 1810000001718”, 8. While nuclear safety issues are fairly consistent, nuclear security challenges are constantly evolving and presenting new challenges for security professionals.

However, while security and safety generally refer to issue on a local or micro level, nuclear energy of course presents issues on an international scale too. 

What about safeguards – doomed to be the awkward third wheel?

To understand nuclear safeguards, one needs to go back to the 1953 Atoms for Peace Speech by President Eisenhower and the entry into force of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). State signatories to this Treaty are either Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) or Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS). Whether a State is considered to have a nuclear weapons program is described in Article IX of the NPT: “For the purposes of this Treaty, a nuclear-weapon State is one which has manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device prior to 1 January 1967.”8UN. (2020). Treaty On The Non-Proliferation Of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) – UNODA. [online] Available at: <https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt/> [Accessed 18 October 2020]. In other words, only a selected group of countries can belong to this ‘club’.

Countries such as India, Pakistan, and North Korea, who tested a nuclear device after 1967, are not part of the NPT. To become part of the Treaty, they would need to give their nuclear weapons up (like South Africa did; yes, they had nuclear weapons). Israel never officially tested a nuclear device and do not possess nuclear weapons (wink, wink). They are not part of the NPT either.

The rest of the signatories to the NPT are considered Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS), and as such, they accept a nuclear safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In essence, nuclear safeguards are the technical means that the IAEA, commonly known as the ‘UN nuclear watchdog’, use to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear activities with the objective of “preventing diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.” 9Ibid.

Historically, some countries have pursued a nuclear weapons program while having a safeguards agreement with the IAEA in place. One of the most notable cases is that of Iraq in the early 1990s.10Baute Jacques. Timeline IRAQ Challenges and Lessons Learned from nuclear inspections. IAEA BULLETIN 46/1, June 2004. https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/publications/magazines/bulletin/bull46-1/46102486468.pdf Despite having a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA), Iraq managed to start developing a Nuclear Weapons Program in undeclared locations. This happened because the IAEA was only allowed to visit sites and facilities that Iraq had declared as part of the information provided to the UN nuclear watchdog. The discovery of a secret nuclear weapons program caused the IAEA to develop the ‘Additional Protocol’ (AP). It is important to note that the AP is a subsidiary agreement to the CSA that states sign with the IAEA. Countries with an AP also need to declare information about their future nuclear energy and application activities, among other things. Also, with the AP, the IAEA has at their disposal more tools to verify the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and gives additional guarantees to the international community that a member state is compliant with its NPT obligations. In essence, the AP provides extra verification tools for the IAEA and a broader scope to achieve its mandate.

Therefore, nuclear safeguards and the IAEA fulfill a particularly important role in the field. It is hard to conceive the nuclear industry that we have nowadays without these verification activities. Other organizations such as Euratom (European Atomic Energy Community) and ABACC (Brazilian-Argentine Agency) also implement nuclear safeguards. As you may be able to tell from the sheer number of acronyms on show,

The international nuclear community is multi-faceted and strictly regulated, ensuring safety across borders as well as within plants and reactors. The industry is water-tight when it comes to regulation.

Is nuclear power a challenge, or a blessing in disguise?

Considering the possible consequences of nuclear energy and its applicationssuch as safety accidents that can render an entire city uninhabitable for a number of years; nuclear security events that could have a financial and psychological impact on society; and the possible use of nuclear energy infrastructure by States to develop the most destructive weapons we must ask ourselves, is nuclear energy worth the risk?

As the Director General of the IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi explains, “Given the scale and urgency of climate challenge, we do not have the luxury of excluding nuclear from the tools at our disposal.”11Birol, F. and Grossi, R., (2020). Without nuclear power, the world’s climate challenge will get a whole lot harder, [online] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/10/09/opinions/without-nuclear-power-the-worlds-climate-challenge-birol-grossi/index.html

Nuclear Power Plants (NPPs) are designed with overlapping and independent systems to prevent nuclear catastrophe. An international secretariat functions around the clock, analysing developments in NPPs around the world, monitoring states’ nuclear fuel cycle capabilities and nuclear related activities, identifying indicators of undeclared nuclear material and activities, and investigating illicit proliferation networks (yes, illicit nuclear networks have existed in the past).12If you search for ‘A.Q. Khan’ on the internet you will find plenty of material on illicit nuclear networks.

The nuclear industry has a strict regulatory framework, and so far, it has functioned effectively. To facilitate the nuclear industry’s activities, different stakeholders should start exploring how to incorporate safeguards in the design of nuclear power plants. Adjusting nuclear facilities (called backfitting or retrofitting) to comply with safeguards can be costly and cause project delays. With new technologies being designed and going through regulatory approval processes, states can ensure nuclear safeguards are taken into consideration from the start.13It is imperative that national nuclear regulatory agencies coordinate with appropriate stakeholders as we have an entire future generation of nuclear technologies on the drawing board. This is something worth exploring and implementing.

It wasn’t until a few years after the Fukushima Dai-ichi accident that many states began reconsidering nuclear power as a sustainable solution to meet their energy demands. As discussed previously, any time states contemplate nuclear power they need to consider their safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Due to the burgeoning ‘nuclear renaissance’, the international nuclear community is evaluating different pathways to implementing effective and efficient safeguard systems.

Small Modular Reactors could create harmony between the three amigos – Safety, Security & Safeguards

Enter, Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)14Small modular reactors (SMRs) are defined as nuclear reactors generally 300 MWe equivalent or less, designed with modular technology using module factory fabrication, pursuing economies of series production and short construction times. – these little reactors bring with them a range of advantages, and they could be crucial in ensuring the next generation of nuclear energy production is safeguarded effectively (and easily).

SMRs are not new. In fact, nuclear submarines are powered by ‘small’ reactors. However, their design is geared towards performance and not energy production. SMRs for nuclear energy have been in the design stage for a few years (some even decades), but are now close to becoming a reality. As the Department of Energy of the USA puts it, “These advanced reactors, envisioned to vary in size from tens of megawatts up to hundreds of megawatts, can be used for power generation, process heat, desalination, or other industrial uses.”15Department of Energy, Advanced Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). Available at < https://www.energy.gov/ne/nuclear-reactor-technologies/small-modular-nuclear-reactors> Including all three aspects from the start would ensure an optimised design, preventing expensive workarounds that could have a potential impact when deploying the technologies.

In the nuclear industry, the concept of “safeguards by design” (SBD) has piqued experts’ curiosity for many years. The concept, which involves integrating nuclear safeguards from the design stage of a Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) or other nuclear installation, has been discussed since the 1970s. 16THE ROYAL SOCIETY SCIENCE POLICY CENTRE, (2011). Fuel cycle stewardship in a nuclear renaissance, Report 10/11, London.

Countries will continue to pursue nuclear power due to climate change and the consequent need for a reliable energy source. With the variety of benefits that SMRs offer (referring specifically to Small Modular Reactors (SMRs)) more countries in Europe and worldwide are considering expanding their energy mix to include nuclear power. Though many SMRs are still at an early stage of design, they nevertheless present a unique opportunity to pursue a holistic approach, taking into consideration the 3S concept (safety, security, and safeguards), “The international nonproliferation community has picked up the discussion, and the nuclear industry is ready to contribute by evaluating whether a broader, synergetic engineering approach of a holistic design concept can be developed that would consider provisions for safety and security of new nuclear facilities.”17Stein, M., and Morichi, M., (2012) Safety, Security, and Safeguards by Design: An Industrial Approach, Nuclear Technology, 179:1, 150-155, DOI: 10.13182/NT12-A14076 Introducing the 3S concept early in the design process ensures benefits for all stakeholders. 18INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY, (2014). Options to Enhance Proliferation Resistance of Innovative Small and Medium Sized Reactors, Nuclear Energy Series No. NP-T-1.11, IAEA, Vienna.19Leaving the implementation of safeguards until after the facilities have been constructed can be costly, technically challenging, and result in considerable project delays. Some of the unique features of SMR’s (e.g., multiple units, series manufacturing, etc.) offer benefits and challenges to each technical topic in the 3S concept.

Currently, there is no set of international recommendations or guidance advocating a 3S approach. As a starting point, the IAEA developed a series of SBD (“safeguards by design”) guidance publications, facility specific documents, where it elaborates on the basic principles of SBD, main challenges, and benefits for the different stakeholders.20NTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY, (2013). International Safeguards in Nuclear Facility Design and Construction, Nuclear Energy Series No. NP-T-2.8, IAEA, Vienna.

Although research in states ranges from technical evaluations and implementation to high-level overviews on the topic, there is still no consensus on integrating the 3S into nuclear facility design.21INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY, (2014). International Safeguards in the Design of Nuclear Reactors, Nuclear Energy Series No. NP-T-2.9, IAEA, Vienna. However, countries understand the inherent benefit that SMRs present in a world where there is a continuous necessity to provide energy while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

SMRs are considerably cheaper than ‘old school’ NPPs, so a state needs a smaller initial financial investment. Of course, as expressed in its name, they are ‘small’ and do not produce the same amount of energy as a conventional NPP. But this is not necessarily a downside, in fact, many states find this attractive.

Remember, size isn’t everything

Take, for example, the Czech Republic and Estonia. The Czech Republic sees SMRs as a solution to provide district heating and energy in remote or isolated areas; “Small and modular reactors can be used in the energy mix of the Czech Republic as small local cogeneration sources of electricity and heating for industrial applications heating and for district heating as well as for potential new unit in of the Dukovany nuclear power plant or small and modular reactors can replace its old units.”22Sklenka, L. What Is SMR?, Czech Technical University in Prague http://malereaktory.cz/en/what-is-smr/ Step by step, the deployment of SMRs in the Czech Republic is becoming a reality. Just recently, Rolls-Royce and CEZ (a company that produces and distributes electricity and heat in the Czech Republic) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the objective of “explore the potential for compact nuclear power stations, known as small modular reactors (SMR), to be built in the Czech Republic.” 23“Rolls-Royce is leading the UK SMR Consortium that is designing this type of low-cost nuclear power station. Its standardised, factory-made components and advanced manufacturing processes push down costs; and the rapid assembly of the modules inside a weatherproof canopy at the power station site itself speeds up schedules.”24Rolls-Royce, Rolls-Royce signs MoU with CEZ for compact nuclear power stations, 09 November 2020 < https://www.rolls-royce.com/media/press-releases/2020/09-11-2020-rr-signs-mou-with-cez-for-compact-nuclear-power-stations.aspx?s=09>

Estonia’s scenario is a bit more complicated as they currently do not have any operating Nuclear Power Plants and, therefore, limited experience in the field. SMRs are especially effective in small states such as Estonia, where they can help phase out reliance on other resources. As a Vattenfall rep stated earlier this year, “Estonian electricity generation is based to a large extent on oil shale, which is the most carbon-dioxide intensive raw material that exists. A shift in Estonia’s electricity generation would be an important climate measure for the whole EU.”25World Nuclear News, Vattenfall involved in Estonian study on SMRs, (2020) < https://world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/Vattenfall-involved-in-Estonian-study-on-SMRs>Last week, Estonia decided to take another step forward and continue exploring the possibility of deploying a NPP by establishing a national working group to analyze the impact of this technology and come to an informed decision.26Krjukov, A. Government sets up working group on nuclear energy. < https://www.err.ee/1155834/valitsus-loob-tuumaenergia-tooruhma>

SMRs present a unique opportunity for many countries that do not necessarily need a conventional NPP or lack the means to build one.

“The key driving forces of SMR development are fulfilling the need for flexible power generation for a wider range of users and applications, replacing ageing fossil-fired units, enhancing safety performance, and offering better economic affordability”, according to the IAEA.27INTERNATIONAL ATOMIC ENERGY AGENCY, (2018). Advances in Small Modular Reactor Technology Developments, IAEA, Vienna.

The governments that have companies currently designing SMRs see the potential market, and recognise that incorporating safeguards in the design is an attractive characteristic for possible buyers. Recognising this, the United States is considering the development of legislation that would, among other things, require designers of advanced nuclear technologies to incorporate safety by design features as a way of facilitating IAEA safeguards and making the technology more proliferation resistant.

Reacting to reactors? Opportunity knocks for the EU

The European Union has been able to pave the way for projects that no one thought would be possible to develop. This ranges from extreme technical projects such as CERN or ITER to finding common ground among the Member States, creating a unified continental front, and tackling issues that can only be resolved multilaterally.

Personally, I’m convinced that an advanced nuclear reactor that holistically approaches safety, security and safeguards to combat climate change is right up the European Union’s street. Through its different research centers, the European Union has been actively pushing research on the topic, but it is time for policy to start doing its thing.

Policymakers and actors involved in the decision-making must consider nuclear energy’s benefits as a safe, secure, reliable, and green energy source. They need to support the design and deployment of these technologies to replace other energy solutions. The European Union should tap into the continent’s vast technical human resources and consider multilaterally developing a European reactor; SMRs offer a great opportunity for Member States to demonstrate the power of collective European intelligence.  

Nuclear safety will only become increasingly important over the next years and decades as countries strive to reach the EU’s carbon emission reduction goals. However, as safeguarding has traditionally been distinct from safety and security, Small Modular Reactors offer unique opportunities for nuclear aspirant states across Europe and the world. If safety, security and safeguarding are considered collectively, we will be able to enjoy a more secure and efficient transition to greener energy production throughout Europe and beyond.

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Francisco Parada

I was born in Mexico and have experience as a researcher in the international field of nuclear safety and security. I like how sometimes I can confuse a strategy with a series of coincidences. It makes me take a closer look to see the different layers of issues, and how they overlap to make sense of a situation. Sometimes, it feels almost like an accident. My interest and passion for the nuclear field were born while researching Brazilian nuclear submarines. Later, I started to work at the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies in California where I used different methodologies to analyze nuclear security events and monitor nuclear weapons program trends and developments. I transitioned to the international field working at the International Atomic Energy Agency with Member States on nuclear safety and security interface issues, and assisted in developing documents related to Small Modular Reactors from a nuclear safety perspective.
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