Four years ago, a devastating tsunami crashed into the coast of Japan. Fifty-foot waves breached the seawall of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, cutting off its emergency power supply and disabling its cooling systems.
The nuclear accident was the worst since the meltdown of the Chernobyl power plant in 1986. Investigators concluded that one of the underlying causes was complacency: those in charge of the facility believed that their safety systems were robust, and there was no effective independent oversight.
The disaster in Japan has spurred reforms in the field of nuclear safety. But when it comes to nuclear security, complacency remains a major problem. We must not wait until tragedy strikes to do something about it.
Today, well over 1.5 million kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium – key ingredients for nuclear weapons – are dispersed across hundreds of facilities in 25 countries. Some are poorly secured. Yet enough nuclear material to fill a small bag of sugar is all it takes to construct a device with the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of people and inflict billions of dollars in damage.
Much has been done to improve security at nuclear facilities in recent years, but governments must do more to protect their citizens from the risks of catastrophic nuclear terrorism. The lessons from the Fukushima crisis can serve as a useful guide for reform.
For starters, governments and industry must treat nuclear security as a process of continuous improvement and work to keep pace with evolving threats and challenges. A facility considered secure 20 years ago might now be vulnerable to a cyber attack that bypasses its security systems or confounds efforts to keep track of its nuclear material.
Well-organized and well-financed non-state groups, like the Islamic State, may employ new tactics, technologies, and capabilities to steal nuclear materials. Governments must therefore consistently evaluate evolving technologies and threats so that security systems designed to protect nuclear materials stay ahead of the capabilities of those who would seek to steal them.
Picture: Cawright2007 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons