Does the UK need to do more to address the threat of nuclear terrorism?

The emotive nature of linking nuclear and terrorism in the same sentence leads to understandably visceral responses as we all seek to protect ourselves and our loved ones from disaster. However, before going any further we should consider some simple truths.

Nuclear facilities are already incredibly safe and secure through design and protection, and Government and infrastructure owners are fully committed to protecting our critical national infrastructure from terrorism. In fact, there has never been a terrorist attack on a nuclear facility in the UK, nor has there been any credible plan exposed that has intended such an attack.

However, the potential impact and consequences of a successful attack means that despite the remotest probability we must consider all potential vulnerabilities, so that the license holders and responders are prepared and able neutralize the threat. The difficulty with this statement is that the threat is continuously evolving in ever shorter cycles as accessible technology, interconnectivity and ideological motives all change. As a nation we must be continuously prepared to adapt to the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Consider the example in autumn last year where French authorities reported nearly two dozen incidents of mystery drones flying over nuclear sites with a level of sophistication and coordination that raised questions around just how secure their nuclear plants really were against the threat of “nuclear terrorism”.

Currently in the UK, UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), or drones, are thought of more as a nuisance than a threat. Drone access to the UK’s operational nuclear reactors is relatively unimpeded when compared to the actions the French government have taken. As it stands, French authorities have permitted Gendarmerie units to shoot down drones in certain situations (not over nuclear sites), equipped Gendarmerie units with radio-goniometers to trace control signals, and positioned military Aladin radar near nuclear sites to spot UAVs. In addition, the French government have implemented no-fly zones around nuclear power stations.

However, these drones remain difficult to detect and the operators even more difficult to capture.

Reactors are designed to withstand far larger impacts from fuelled aircraft and so the direct physical threat from the UAV and most feasible payloads are largely considered as inconsequential. However the indirect threat from importing devices or weapons to people inside the perimeters, surveillance of security measures or targeting “softer targets” within the plant are all very real.

Simply dismissing UAV sightings near nuclear plants as being nuisance demonstrations to annoy, scare or make a political point must be challenged, however treating everything as an imminent terrorist incident would be enough to cause considerable and regular operational impact.

It is this threat-reaction link that requires considerable and careful thought in order to maintain security without continual operational interruption. What would happen if a drone simply entered the airspace above a nuclear site, what if it dropped a substance inside the perimeter, what if it were relaying video or imagery to a third party? At what point is the threat “a nuisance”, “an incident”, “activism”, “terrorism” or a frightening reality?

The UK Government is currently planning a new generation of reactors, starting with Hinkley Point C in Somerset, and the very nature of these developments will lead to differences of opinion and the potential for conflict. What the above example highlights is that security is not just a job for the licensee to undertake to meet a regulatory requirement. A strong nuclear security stance for the UK has its roots in governmental policy, regulation and legislation every bit as much as the strength in depth that can be achieved by the owners through the application of technology, people and processes.

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