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Safety-security - time to think?

31 August 2011

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster gave terrorists and other malefactors a tip. By targeting nuclear plants, they can wreak havoc comparable to that wrought by an earthquake and tsunami, crippling a great economic and military power.

True, no terrorist attack has ever released radiation from a nuclear facility. That's no guarantee one never will. But the likely ramifications boggle the mind.

Nuclear safety and nuclear security share the goal of protecting humans and the environment by assuring that nuclear power plants operate at acceptable risk levels. People driven by malice with access to a nuclear site could stymie this goal. Cutting outside power to the reactor, damaging the site’s emergency diesel generator or otherwise degrading the reactor cooling system could well cause a Fukushima-like meltdown.

A terrorist version of Fukushima is plausible ― with all the human suffering, economic dislocation and problems the March 2011 cataclysm entailed.

Or, as U.N. Secretary-General Ban Kimoon put it in April when visiting the site of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, "At a time when terrorists and others are seeking nuclear materials and technology, stringent safety systems at nuclear power plants will reinforce efforts to strengthen nuclear security." Both safety and security must be enhanced at nuclear installations around the world.

That sounds like common sense, but safety and security aren't the same thing.

Security is about defending against deliberate acts. Safety is about responding to equipment malfunctions that may compromise operational effectiveness. Safety workers face no "enemy" unless human beings consciously cause a hardware failure. One effort is interactive, the other is not ― giving rise to very different outlooks on how to manage emergencies.

The challenge is that for safety the guiding principle is transparency and across-the-board involvement, while for security it’s about intelligence gathering and confidentiality, including post-event investigation. If safety professionals are supposed to reach out to the public, their security counterparts are traditionally secretive. However, there are clear areas where the two coincide, and it is this safety-security interface that needs to be strengthened.

Leadership must arrange procedures so that security and safety measures reinforce, rather than handicap, each other.

Should multiple hazards coincide ― say, a natural disaster like Fukushima or a terrorist strike - plant personnel must respond to each emergency simultaneously. The key lies in coordinating these twin efforts. Separate organisations within the plant staff oversee safety and security. They must appreciate the differences between the two and work toward unity of effort to handle a complex and possibly multihazard emergency.

This starts before a disaster ever occurs. Safety and security measures cannot be improvised on the fly during a crisis. They must be built into a plant throughout all phases of its service life, from design and construction to routine operation to decommissioning and dismantlement. Safety and security thus begin at the drawing board, with an assessment of candidate sites for the plant and the design of the installation itself.

Assessing ― and continually reassessing ― risk is crucial throughout the plant's lifetime. Realistic estimates factor in a wide range of hazards, not to mention combinations of hazards.

Confronted with complex disasters, nuclear managers must organise, recruit, train, and lead safety and security personnel in a way that helps the leadership react flexibly and quickly. Instilling the right habits and traits in responders ― the right culture ― is critical.

Fukushima has demonstrated that technical fixes are not enough, though vitally important.

The human factor is the critical factor in endeavours such as nuclear security and safety. This lesson must not be wasted on us.

Yet it could be. Disquietingly, just three months after Fukushima, the European Union conducted "stress tests" to evaluate the safety of European nuclear plants. Brussels did not evaluate security precautions, citing "confidentiality" and opposition from member governments.

A declaration in June by the International Atomic Energy Agency acknowledged "multiple severe hazards" but, similarly, neglected the security dimension.

If a wakeup call is still necessary, it came from homegrown Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, who detonated a powerful bomb in downtown Oslo last month before gunning down over 70 people on a small island. Breivik posted a 1,500-page manifesto on the Internet beforehand, giving detailed instructions about how to use weapons of mass destruction. Included were specific recommendations on how to sabotage nuclear plants.

It is high time to develop a new paradigm of nuclear safety and security that protects life while spreading the blessings of nuclear power.

The special session to be hosted by Secretary-General Ban in September 2011 in New York and the second Nuclear Security Summit in March 2012 in Seoul are the two major international events that can inject the political will needed to implement more effective and integrated safety-security measures.

Unless we learn lessons from past failures, we may soon repeat them on a far larger scale.

John Gale

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