Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

Drones: Good News and Bad News for Nuclear Security

| Apr. 27, 2015

The news that an anti-nuclear protester landed a slightly radiation-laced drone on the Japanese Prime Minister’s office building highlights the burgeoning role of drones in debates about nuclear security. Drones can contribute to both threats to nuclear facilities and defenses against those threats.

While the investigation is continuing, it appears that Yasuo Yamamoto never intended to cause any damage – the radiation in the drone was minor, apparently from sand he collected in Fukushima prefecture, expressing his concerns over the dangers of nuclear energy.

Drones could, however, be used for more nefarious purposes, such as carrying explosives to attack targets ranging from public figures to crowds of people to particular vulnerable machines or buildings.  (The potential for attacks on public figures was highlighted by the close approach of a drone run by a prankster during a German election rally featuring Angela Merkel in 2013.)

Unexplained flights by sophisticated drones over most of France’s nuclear plants last year (some of which have continued this year) highlighted the potential threat to nuclear facilities.  French authorities announced that, while the defense in depth at nuclear facilities already took aircraft threats into account, they were taking new steps to improve the ability to detect and stop such small aircraft (including launching a million-euro R&D program).  Drones’ small size and ability to fly low make them a tough job for radar detection.  (See here for a discussion provoked by the French overflights.)

 Drones could pose a number of threats to nuclear facilities.  At a minimum, they can provide detailed images of the facility layout, far better than anything commercially available from satellites (or even, for most facilities, readily available from aircraft photography); they could even provide real-time monitoring of guard responses as attackers sought to penetrate a facility.  But they could also be used for more active, potentially violent assistance to an attack (for example by attacking a guard post covering an attack route, or blowing a hole in a fence, or providing a distraction while the real attack takes place elsewhere).  One could even imagine drones being used to carry stolen nuclear material out of a facility, flying over the facility’s on-the-ground security measures.

At the extreme, drones might be used for the entire attack, without a human attack team penetrating the nuclear site.  Concerns have been raised, for example, about the possibility of multiple drones being used to destroy both the off-site power supply and the emergency diesel generator at a nuclear power plant, triggering a dangerous “station blackout” that could, if power was not restored in time, lead to a nuclear meltdown.  (This is yet another good argument for the well-protected extra diesel generators and rapidly deployable off-site diesel generators that a number of countries have put in place since the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.)

But drones can also play an important role in strengthening the defenses of nuclear sites and transports.  (See here for another view on this topic.)  They provide a relatively low-cost option for keeping an eye on the area near a nuclear plant or a transport on the road, so that anything that looked like an armed attack team could be seen long before they could attack, offering crucial extra time for defenders to get ready.  In some cases, the extra time might be enough to stop an attack before it began.  Half a decade ago, Russian companies were already showing off low-cost drones they had designed for this purpose at nuclear meetings.  More recently, companies have begun exploring the potential for drones to intercept other drones.

In short, in the years to come, drones will be providing improved tools for both the offense and the defense that nuclear security managers will have to take into account.  For the moment, there’s no hard evidence that drones will fundamentally shift the balance either in favor of the offense or in favor of the defense.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Bunn, Matthew.Drones: Good News and Bad News for Nuclear Security.” Nuclear Security Matters, April 27, 2015, https://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/publication/drones-good-news-and-bad-news-nuclear-security.

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