NRC Decision Leaves U.S. Nuclear Plants Vulnerable to Terrorist Drones

Published Nov 4, 2019

WASHINGTON (November 4, 2019)—After a two-year review, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has declined to require owners of U.S. nuclear power reactors and some nuclear material processing plants to defend against unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones. As a result, commercial nuclear facilities will remain unprepared to cope with the additional capabilities that these rapidly evolving technologies could provide to terrorist groups seeking to sabotage nuclear reactors or steal weapon materials, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The decision was disclosed in an unclassified summary document posted on the NRC’s public document server on October 30.

“The NRC’s irresponsible decision ignores the wide spectrum of threats that drones pose to nuclear facilities and is out of step with policies adopted by the Department of Energy and other government agencies,” said physicist Edwin Lyman, acting director of the UCS Nuclear Safety Project. “Congress should demand that the NRC require nuclear facility owners to update their security plans to protect against these emerging threats.”

The NRC requires nuclear power reactor owners to protect their facilities against attacks by terrorists assumed to have a defined set of capabilities known as the “design basis threat.” After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside of Washington, D.C., the NRC considered but ultimately rejected requiring nuclear plants to defend against attacks by jets or other types of aircraft. The NRC argued that protecting nuclear facilities from aircraft is the responsibility of the Transportation Security Administration and other federal agencies.

Rapid advancements in drone technology since then, however, have introduced new ways in which terrorists could use readily available aerial systems to defeat nuclear plant security measures that are designed only to defend against ground-based assaults and vehicles. Drones have been misused to spy on the U.S.-Mexican border, smuggle contraband into prisons, and—most recently—to attack oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia. Drones are difficult to detect and defeat without specialized equipment.

According to an April 2019 report by the Department of Energy (DOE) inspector general, “the increasing availability and improved capabilities of small [drones] enhances the potential for use in illicit operations, including surveillance, disruption, and weaponization.” The report recommended that the DOE “use the appropriate process to update security controls based on the most recent information available concerning [drone] capabilities.” In response, the agency is revising its design basis threat policy, but the details of its revision—like the original design basis threat policy—are classified. By contrast, the NRC’s own threat assessment resulted a recommendation of no action.

The NRC summary claims that drones would not be able to exploit security vulnerabilities at nuclear reactors or other facilities or provide any surveillance capabilities beyond what potential adversaries are already assumed to have. It is true that small payload drones would not likely to be able to cause major damage by themselves to safety structures and equipment. But there are many ways in which drones could assist ground-based attackers, including delivering more weapons, explosives and other equipment to a nuclear facility’s protected areas than an attacking force could carry. Drones also could create disturbances to confuse plant security forces and disrupt their response, as well as provide real-time aerial surveillance as an attack progresses.

"Many companies are developing technologies to protect critical infrastructure from drone attacks through early detection, tracking, and jamming,” said Lyman. “If the NRC were to add drones to the design basis threat, nuclear plant owners would likely to have to purchase such systems. Laws would also have to be changed to allow private facilities to disrupt hostile drone flights. But plant owners are loath to spend more on safety and security at a time when many of their facilities are struggling to compete with cheap natural gas, wind and solar.

“The NRC seems more interested in keeping the cost of nuclear plant security low than protecting Americans from terrorist sabotage that could cause a reactor meltdown,” he added. “The agency needs to remember that it works for the public, not the industry it regulates.”