Next gen reactor design aims to ease security concerns

The public’s perception of the safety of nuclear power is one of the industry’s largest hurdles to greater adoption, with horror stories around Chernobyl and Fukushima dominating the narrative, but the next generation of reactors will be safer than ever, say industry experts.

Containers are seen at a plant for processing liquid radioactive waste at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (Source: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

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Public concern surrounding nuclear power focuses on a range of potentially catastrophic scenarios, including sabotage or attacks on existing plants, theft of weapon-grade materials, cyber attacks on a plant’s systems, dirty bombs from nuclear waste, natural disasters causing leakage from a damaged plant and meltdowns.

The 2020 Nuclear Security Index (NTI) found that global nuclear security has slowed significantly in the last two years, with progress on protecting nuclear materials against theft and nuclear facilities against acts of sabotage the most affected. 

Faltering global cooperation and the rise of political leaders with little incentive to hash out multilateral accords have fueled this decline ever since the last Nuclear Security Summit in 2016, says Laura S. H. Holgate, Vice President of Materials Risk Management for NTI.

“We’re seeing a lagging indicator of political momentum since the last summit. It’s concerning and we didn’t expect to see it so clearly in the data. That’s a very dangerous trend,” says Holgate.

NTI uses public information to track progress on nuclear security at a country level with two theft rankings, including a ranking of 22 countries with 1 kilo or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials and a ranking of 153 countries (and Taiwan) with less than 1 kilo, or no, weapons-usable material, and a sabotage ranking of 46 countries (and Taiwan) with nuclear facilities.

“To address the overall finding that progress has slowed significantly, countries must strengthen and sustain political attention on nuclear security to drive progress on adopting nuclear security regulations and on building a more effective global nuclear security architecture,” the NTI report said.

Security by Design 

The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the limits of how countries cope with gross-border threats while prospects for improving efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism are complicated by growing global disorder and disruption, it adds.

While global leaders fumble nuclear energy security and its image worldwide, actors within the industry say efforts being made, especially with new technology, mean threats from nefarious actors are already being successfully neutralized through Security by Design.

“Developers are thinking about safety and security from the very outset. It’s understood how important that is. Early in the development is the best place to start thinking about safety and security because you can more efficiently design it into the reactor,” says the Director for New Reactor Development at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) Marc Nichol.

“For example, many of the new reactor designs focus on simplicity,” says Nichol, “Developers use features that rely on natural forces, like gravity, rather than active components, like pumps, which protects against meltdowns after instrument failure and sabotage.”

As for cyberattacks, the current and upcoming fleet is completely ringfenced making any online intrusion virtually impossible, says the NEI.

“We operate as islands of operation, we don’t let any data come into the plant in any way over any type of network and that is very important given that you might have active adversaries outside the plant,” says NEI Director for Nuclear Security and Incident Preparedness Bill Gross.

“We also implement a comprehensive set of cybersecurity rules around any type of media or digital equipment that we bring in to the plant to perform maintenance, so if you think of thumb drives, laptops and contractors that come in to work on the plant.”

Supply chain risks

Growing tensions between China and the Britain over the security of 5G infrastructure from Huawei have prompted calls for a review of nuclear projects under construction in the UK, including Hinkley Point C and still-to-be-green-lit Sizewell C, both of which are co-owned by the state-owned company China General Nuclear. 

Gross says supply chain risks are evaluated at an early stage in a system’s development.

“Addressing supply chain and cyber security concerns begins early in the system lifecycle. The cyber assessment considers the credibility of the supplier and the potential that a component might be compromised. Nuclear plants rely on vetted suppliers and perform cyber assessments throughout a system’s lifecycle,” he says. 

The efforts being made by developers to build security into the system means regulators need to recognize the different technology the reactors are working with and adjust strict rules surrounding them, say some within the industry. 

The difference between new technology like small modular reactors and earlier generation plants is as stark as the difference between a 1950s computer, located in a special, air-conditioned room under lock and key, and a modern-day laptop, says Director of Policy and Research at Canada Nuclear Association John Stewart. 

“Using the current nuclear regulatory regime to govern small reactors would be a bit like insisting that every laptop be locked in an airconditioned room. It wouldn’t make any sense,” he says.

The system would need to be set up like the air traffic control network with aviation, Stewart says, with fleets of reactors spread over a large geographical area electronically monitored locally and operated out of a central control room.

Walking the tightrope

The big issue with nuclear power plant security, as the industry moves into a new era of plant technology and as people push harder for non-carbon-emitting power generation, is whether the nuclear industry is willing and able to put the money and effort into avoiding a single event that would bring the whole industry to a halt.

“Developers are really walking a tight rope right now as there’s not a lot of money available. They’re focused on getting the technology right, getting in to the regulatory approval process and they’ll deal with the rest of it later, and I think that’s short sighted,” says President of Partnership for Global Security and creator of Global Nexus Initiative Ken Luongo,
Doing it right will cost money, admits Luongo, but insists that it is worth it.

“We’re not getting to zero carbon on sun and wind. I do think we’re going to need this technology … but you’re not going to have the next generation of nuclear reactors unless you have high standards. It’s part of the package and I don’t think you’re going to be able to sell this on the cheap,” he says.

By Paul Day