27 October 2016

How secure is nuclear security?

Nuclear waste
Nuclear security issues continue to play on the minds of policymakers around the world. In response, the Institution of Chemical Engineers’ (IChemE) latest Ashok Kumar Fellow and Yale University postgraduate chemical engineer, Akshay Deshmukh, has produced a detailed ‘Postnote’ briefing on the subject for UK parliamentarians.

The briefing has been produced at the conclusion of Akshay’s secondment to the UK Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST), which is supported by IChemE and the North East Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC).

The briefing provides an overview of the key threats to nuclear security, with a focus on Russia and USA which together account for more than 90% of the world’s nuclear stockpile. It also reveals that developing countries are most at risk of their nuclear security being compromised, since standards of protection vary globally.

Deshmukh’s briefing assesses various scenarios in which nuclear security could be threatened. Theft of nuclear material is seen as very unlikely due to stringent national security measures applied by nuclear states. The potential for a terrorist organisation building a nuclear device is thought to be improbable due to a significant global reduction in stocks of weapons-usable nuclear materials (WUNM’s) over the last twenty years. The number of countries holding more than a kilogramme WUNM has fallen from 35 to 24 since 2010.

The threat of cyber terrorism is considered. The briefing reports the views of defence analysts who believe that hacking into nuclear command and control systems would be extremely difficult. However, concerns are flagged around the possibility of communication channels between governments being deliberately disrupted by a third party at a time of raised international tension, thereby exacerbating a crisis.

Policy challenges identified in the paper include: a call for further development of the agreements on WUNM, which currently only cover civilian stockpiles. Russia’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Security Summit in 2016 which reduced US-Russia collaboration; and the security of funding for nuclear security projects – particularly in the UK.

“Akshay has made an important contribution” said Chandrika Nath, deputy director of POST. “His rigorous approach to research and his attention to detail have proved invaluable in tackling this challenging topic. We have had a lot of positive feedback from people who reviewed the document and I'm sure it will prove useful to MPs, Peers and others with an interest in nuclear matters.”

Deshmukh added: “I have really enjoyed my time with POST. I’ve learned a great deal about how scientific advisers research complex topics and write impartial, concise and easily digestible briefings. I also enjoyed the opportunity to attend debates in parliament and select committee hearings over the course of the fellowship. I would like to thank POST, IChemE and NEPIC for giving me the opportunity and Dr Nath for her support.”

IChemE’s director of policy, Claudia Flavell-While said: “Nuclear security is a difficult subject to tackle because information is heavily restricted. Nonetheless, Akshay’s briefing is insightful and detailed; it provides MPs with a clear overview of a difficult topic. Chemical engineering is fundamental to safe and secure nuclear technologies, both in the civil and military domains. This work shows that chemical engineering matters.”

The Ashok Kumar Fellowship provides an annual opportunity for a graduate chemical engineer to spend three months working at POST. It is jointly funded by the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE) and the North-East of England Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC).

Ashok Kumar, a Fellow of IChemE and Labour Member of Parliament (MP) for Middlesbrough South and Cleveland East, UK, died suddenly in 2010. He was the only Chartered Chemical Engineer in the UK House of Commons at the time.

Akshay Deshmukh was awarded the fellowship in February 2016, and started his three month placement May. Applications are now open for the next Ashok Kumar Fellowship in 2017, those interested should visit www.icheme.org/ashok. The closing date for applications is 31 October 2016.

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IChemE is a registered charity in England & Wales (214379), and a charity registered in Scotland (SC 039661).