How Safe Are Nuclear Plants Around the World?

Nuclear Reactors
Image courtesy of Freedigitalphotos.net

As the world waits to see what happens with North Korea this week, I began to wonder about the security of the power system around the world.

North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in February, which led to stricter sanctions from the U.N. Security Council. The North Koreans then threatened attacks on South Korea and the United States, as the two countries conducted military drills. Last week, North Korea announced that it would re-open all of its old nuclear reactors for electricity and military purposes. And this week, South Korea warned that North Korea could launch a missile test soon. The United States has now sent more guided-missile destroyers into the western Pacific.

So, if this missile test occurs, could it demonstrate that North Korea has the ability to strike South Korea or countries further away? And what could it mean if any country chose to launch a missile at the power generation system of another country?

A debilitating strike on the power system of most industrialized countries would cause serious damage to those countries. The government, utilities, banking systems, schools and businesses in general would grind to a halt. But unlike a storm-related outage that affects the transmission and distribution lines, a terrorist attack would likely target the generation source, which would wreak more widespread and longer-term havoc.

In particular, I wonder about the security of the nuclear reactors and spent fuel storage systems (particularly those above ground) that are located around the world. As we saw in Japan, an earthquake and tsunami can cause some serious damage to nuclear plants. What could a missile strike do?

If North Korea launched some sort of attack, could it hit one of South Korea’s nuclear reactors? South Korea has 23 reactors, according to the World Nuclear Association. One-third of the country’s electricity is generated by nuclear plants, and the country’s goal is that by 2030, nuclear power will be responsible for 59% of its electricity generation as the country ratchets up to 40 reactors. So, an attack on a nuclear reactor in South Korea would not only release nuclear toxins into the air, but it would strike at the power grid of the country. And if somehow North Korea were able to take control of one or more of South Korea’s nuclear reactors, what would happen to the high-level wastes?

OK, so the likelihood of this happening is slim, and the likelihood of North Korean missiles striking nuclear plants within the United States is even more slim, but dangers lurk outside of North Korea. What about the ability of other groups to infiltrate nuclear facilities or carry out ground attacks against them?

A 2012 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has continued to focus on keeping U.S. nuclear facilities secure from terrorist attacks, even hosting an International Regulators Conference on Nuclear Security this past December.

However, when it comes to other safety issues related to the 104 nuclear reactors in the United States, the Union of Concerned Scientists was not as positive. The report says that the NRC has a lax oversight of nuclear facilities, and the report details 14 “near-misses” at plants within the United States in 2012. It also notes that the agency has yet to deal with the spent fuel storage issue. A federal court ruled last year that despite its requirement to do so, the agency had not yet specified how long spent fuel could be stored at plant sites before becoming unsafe.

Where do you think the greatest danger lies with nuclear facilities around the world? Is it internal issues related to the age of facilities and the storage of spent fuel? Is it natural disasters? Is it an attack by terrorists?