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Commentary: Drone Threat to Nuclear Plants

January 30, 2015 (Photo Credit: Illustration)

These reports come amid the Paris attacks and other foiled terrorist plots in Europe. But is there any risk that terrorists would seek to target nuclear facilities? If so, would they use drones?

Nuclear facilities certainly hold cachet among state and sub-state actors. And killer robots are headline eye candy. Drones — non-combat, combat and civilian — have an image problem, for sure; but is the current hype sensationalist or representative of an actual growing threat?

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, and nearly two dozen reported mystery drone sightings over French nuclear installations, realistic questions have surfaced about how to identify and defend against drones that enter the airspace around a nuclear facility.

Concerns about airborne threats are not new; in the aftermath of the use of civilian aircraft as piloted projectiles in 2001, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) began to examine the resilience of existing American nuclear facilities to withstand airborne threats, deliberate or accidental, whether coordinated from the air, space, sea or on land.

Protecting nuclear facilities from disruption or disaster is inherently part of the risk calculus used by nations when deciding to include nuclear power in its energy portfolio.

Of greatest concern is protecting the reactor core from being deliberately compromised or from overheating due to a failure, and thus releasing radioactivity (such as was the case in the Fukushima accident). While less onerous, disrupting or damaging co-located softer targets, such as electrical transformers, auxiliary generators or supervisory control systems, resulting in loss of power, would undoubtedly generate fear and possibly foster a lack of confidence in the government's ability to safeguard public safety.

Addressing the issue of engineering reactors to prevent or mitigate against airborne threats, the NRC has concluded that new builds, including applications for licenses to new designs, must comply with requirements to ensure reactor core and spent-fuel pool integrity using a threat assessment process.

But if a large enough attack is successfully perpetrated on a nuclear power plant, the response will require integrated planning among operators, and national authorities including intelligence agencies, military capacities and regulators: No single entity can bear the burden alone.

Suggestions that nuclear operators be required to provide the same level of security that a military can have been dismissed in France and the US, but these decisions were made when drones were just emerging on the scene as a combat or ISR tool.

Consequently, it may be necessary to look beyond the current design-basis threat (DBT) assessment and revisit the debate on how the DBT is used by countries operating or seeking to operate new reactors. For the time being, commercially available or "toy" drones do not have the ability to breach the reactor core. This is not to say that drones, even toy drones, can't elude detection; be used to carry damaging payloads such as explosives, incendiary devices or jammers; take images that show guard movements; or support an amphibious or land-based attack.

The French are now suggesting legislating specific "highly sensitive military zones" around reactors. However, criminalizing airspace infringement by protest groups is not tantamount to keeping out the real threat. Complicating matters in France is the fact that the national nuclear regulatory authority is not wholly responsible for security requirements, although this may change soon.

Regardless of whether one is considering France, the UK o r Belgium — or any of the 131 nuclear reactors in 14 European countries, not to mention those planned across Eastern Europe, Turkey and Russia — the role that militaries and anti-drone weapons and countermeasures will play must be discussed.

What will relevant US agencies and the intelligence community make of European proposals? The FAA has yet to co-mingle drones with private or commercial aircraft, so the sky is the limit. And while the European media has tended mostly toward sensationalism in its coverage of drones lurking around nuclear reactors, the reports are unsettling, but perhaps not yet worthy of widespread panic.

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Hersh is a risk analyst, consultant and a Truman National Security Fellow. The views expressed here are her own.

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