ICHEME Ashok Kumar Fellow Akshay Deshmukh has completed a briefing note for UK members of parliament (MPs) on the subject of nuclear security, both physical and cyber.
The POSTnote briefing document, which is available on the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST) website, was written following Deshmukh’s three-month placement at POST. The paper gives MPs an overview of threats to nuclear security and the initiatives, both in the UK and internationally, trying to address those threats. Deshmukh is currently studying for a PhD in chemical and environmental engineering at Yale University, US and was awarded the Fellowship in February.
There are ongoing concerns about the potential for malicious acts involving radioactive materials, particularly from such materials falling into terrorist hands. The US and Russia between them own 93% of the world’s 15,500 nuclear warheads and 82% of the world’s nuclear material. There are another 24 countries with more than 1 kg of nuclear material suitable for weapons use, known as weapons-usable nuclear materials (WUNM); and 100 other countries that store radioactive sources.
Deshmukh first considers the likelihood of the detonation of a nuclear device. It is unlikely that a terrorist or hostile group would be able to steal a warhead due to high levels of security, although Deshmukh notes that there are variations in safety around the world. Russia’s warheads are thought to be spread around 40 sites, while Pakistan is under continuous threat from terrorists, so these two states are thought to be the most vulnerable.
The POSTnote says that experts believe that if a well-funded terrorist group could buy WUNMs it could build a gun-type nuclear device. An implosion device is likely to be beyond their capabilities due to the specialist equipment required for separation and reprocessing. Those incapable of processing material instead might look to stealing or sabotaging nuclear facilities that contain it, the report warns. However, modern facilities, built since 9/11, are designed to withstand outside interference and older facilities have largely been retrofitted to increase security.
Deshmukh notes that while there is a threat of a cyber attack on a nuclear weapon, most experts agree that hacks into a nuclear command and control system would be extremely difficult and therefore unlikely. What attackers are most likely to do is hack into and interfere with communications between nuclear warhead-owning countries to exacerbate an existing problem. Some countries, including Russia and the US, keep nuclear warheads on high alert and are therefore most susceptible to this.
The POSTnote finishes with a look at some of the challenges surrounding international nuclear policy. This includes developing agreements surrounding WUNM, which at present only cover civilian, rather than military stockpiles, and the worsening relationship between the US and Russia. Deshmukh also looks at the security of funding for nuclear security.
The Ashok Kumar Fellowship was set up in memory of Kumar, an IChemE Fellow and UK MP, following his sudden death in 2010, and is jointly funded by IChemE and the North East of England Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC). The recipient spends three months at POST to learn about how it works and produce a POSTnote, or contribute to a longer report. The 2015 Ashok Kumar Fellow, Michael Jenkins, wrote his briefing on the huge water and sanitation problems facing many areas of the world.
“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 thanked Nath for her support, as well as IChemE and NEPIC for funding the Fellowship, and 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.”
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