Coping with the Threat of Nuclear and Radiological Emergencies

  • by: Nadav Morag, PhD, University Dean, Security Studies
  • January 09, 2015
  • Homeland Security

NATO Advanced WorkshopI had the pleasure of attending The NATO Advanced Research Workshop, and presenting some of my own research, in the context of nuclear and radiological threats to international and homeland security. 

What is NATO?

The workshop was hosted by NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is an alliance organization that brings together the United States and Canada with a variety of European Countries.  NATO was established in 1949 to cope with the Soviet threat to Europe and today, fills a variety of roles including helping member nations prepare for a range of threats, from traditional military threats to cyber threats to the issue of weapons of mass destruction. That brings us back to this workshop, which was designed to present the latest research in this area.

Nuclear Weapons

The workshop discussed with a wide range of issues regarding nuclear weapons, radiological weapons (conventional bombs that spread radioactive materials), and nuclear and radiological safety.  One of the main themes was the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the impact of that proliferation on international security. In this context, I presented a paper about the strategic impact of nuclear proliferation in the case of Iran and the impact that an Iranian nuclear capability will have on the Middle East and Western interests. My argument was that Iran does not need to actually build a nuclear weapon in order to gain the benefits of being a “nuclear power” as long as it can have the capacity to build a bomb in a relatively short period of time (what is known as having a “threshold” capability).

Consequently, Iran is likely to start behaving like a country with nuclear weapons and this will have an impact on other major players in the Middle East as well as the United States. Other speakers discussed nuclear proliferation in the context of North Korea as well as the threat of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, or the development of nuclear weapons capabilities, on the part of terrorist organizations, particularly Al Qaeda as well as the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).

Emergency Preparedness

Another theme that was addressed by a variety of speakers was the preparedness for nuclear and radiological emergencies (whether resulting from terrorism, cyber-attacks, natural disasters, or operator error) including preventing, protecting against, responding, and recovering from such emergencies.  Nuclear power plants, for example, need to protect themselves from terrorist attacks, cyber-attacks that might disrupt systems, operator error, and natural disasters in a way that can mitigate the impact of attacks, mistakes, or natural disasters as well as enhance the response when these occur.

In the area of natural disasters alone, many of the nation’s nuclear power plants lie in areas of considerable seismic activity, including the New Madrid Fault Line in our nation’s midsection and a major earthquake could prompt a nuclear and radiological emergency similar to the Fukushima-Daichi nuclear power plant in Japan during the earthquake and tsunami disaster of 2011.

Technology and Innovation

A number of the speakers at the workshop represented companies developing technology to assist in preventing nuclear and radiological emergencies or responding to them when they occur.  For example, one U.S. company has developed a sensor that uses Muons (elementary particles similar to electrons that flow through the universe at a measurable rate and whose velocity and flow are impacted by various  elements, including uranium and plutonium – critical components of nuclear weapons) to create the capacity to detect hidden nuclear devices.

Other technologies allow teams to insert detection equipment into crippled nuclear reactors in order to determine where the reactor core has been damaged and where sealant materials need to be placed in order to help stop the flow of radiation and assist in the cleanup.

In short, the workshop was multi-faceted and provided some excellent information on cutting-edge research being done to cope with what is certainly one of the major threats we face.

Learn more about CTU’s Security’s Studies programs.

Image credit: flickr/Vesa Reijonen