Nuclear reactors are used in a wide array of applications, ranging from research and development of more efficient nuclear reactors, the formation of medical isotopes, the development of various weapons, to the generation of electricity. However, nuclear reactions require highly radioactive material to fuel them. This material is extremely hazardous to both humans and the environment, and thus requires an extremely high standard of safety and security to prevent catastrophes such as those in Chernobyl and Fukushima. Currently there are 32 states with functioning nuclear power stations and additional states are considering, planning for, or actively introducing nuclear facilities. With an increasing number of nations turning to nuclear power, the possibility for devastation rises as nuclear power stations are exposed to areas of instability or conflict.
The need to properly secure these installations is not a new one. Recent events surrounding the conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine have raised concerns for potential damage, the consequences of which could be generational. Nuclear facilities have generally not been designed to withstand direct assault or bombardment. Even if a nuclear facility itself is not the target of an attack, nearby shelling can disrupt electricity flow to critical safety and security systems. Damage to these could cause issues ranging from a loss of facility heating, a reactor leak or meltdown. Thus, having the infrastructure to protect nuclear reactors and the facilities that house them is critical. Furthermore, the instability of wartime can also create difficulties for staffing nuclear facilities and obtaining the necessary supplies for safe operation.
At the forefront of this present discussion, is the situation in Ukraine. Ukraine is home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant- Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP)- three other active facilities, and Chernobyl, a constant reminder of the consequences of jeopardizing nuclear safety and security. In conflict zones such as those in Ukraine, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has historically provided assistance to states in the form of backup sources of power and support staff to ensure the continued safe operation of these facilities. This unprecedented direct threat towards operating nuclear facilities and equally unprecedented response from the IAEA opens the door for discussion on how to handle the safety and security for future nuclear facilities exposed to conflict.
IAEA – Nuclear Security Recommendations on Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Nuclear Facilities:
Update 137 – IAEA Director General Statement on Situation in Ukraine: