by Sanaa Alvira*
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has raised fears about the safety and security of nuclear energy facilities and the consequences should such a place become a target. The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine has come under repeated shelling during the war. On Feb. 24, 2022, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) activated its Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) following the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The IAEA has been in regular contact with their Ukrainian counterparts and continues to monitor the nuclear facilities, “focusing on the implications of nuclear safety, security and safeguards.” In the form of statements by the Director General Rafael Grossi, the IAEA continues to issue almost daily updates updating the public on the situation in Ukraine.
The IAEA’s regular updates have been a reliable and reassuring source of information to the public. However, this is a recent phenomenon – historically, the public hasn’t always been properly informed on issues concerning the nuclear industry for geopolitical and military reasons. Despite being one of the most overlooked stakeholders in the nuclear sector, the support of the public is necessary for the development and use of nuclear and radioactive material – whether in industry, agriculture, or medicine. Since the development of the nuclear program, even a civilian one, in a country is considered a highly strategic and top-secret endeavor, any decision regarding it – from plant construction to waste management – rarely involves input from the public.
Researchers and citizen journalists are now leveraging Open Source Intelligence, or OSINT, which is the act of analyzing publicly available data (for example, from social media and commercial satellite imagery) for intelligence purposes. This has certainly allowed the public to investigate and be self-informed on nuclear developments from around the world, but it is not without its challenges. It is often difficult to differentiate analysis from experts versus amateurs, or even adversaries, since the publicly available information often leads to saturated, contradictory, and misleading commentary.
Against this background, one of the biggest challenges the nuclear industry continues to face is the culture of excessive secrecy. Nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein explains that despite activists successfully lobbying for the release of information on the United States’ nuclear program, the government’s initial openness was reversed in the face of new threats. Although the Cold War ended decades ago, nuclear-armed states typically default to high levels of secrecy regarding their nuclear programs – not just the military aspects, but also civilian programs. There is a need for states, and their respective nuclear regulators, to distinguish between protecting information that is actually confidential from information that must be shared with relevant stakeholders, including and importantly, the public.
The Path Forward
The IAEA’s regular updates on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine have been a timely example of the growing realization in the international community that the public has legitimate interests in nuclear safety and security issues. A report by the International Nuclear Safety Group (INSG) titled Stakeholder Involvement in Nuclear Issues states, “All operators and regulators should be aware that public confidence is an important prerequisite for the credibility of their statements and acts, and thus for the success of a national nuclear program”. For the public to have confidence in their country’s nuclear program, they must be involved on decisions concerning them. For example, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recognizing the importance of public involvement on nuclear safety issues, conducted a series of workshops in September 2022 on climate resilience and emergency preparedness in two rural communities in close proximity to the Savannah River Site. The workshops served as a good communication mechanism and venue for discussion to help identify strategies to reduce exposure and increase resilience during an emergency or natural disaster. However, such workshops should not be a “one time occurrence” – it is necessary not only to establish, but also maintain a constructive two-way interaction between participants.
As many countries are revisiting the option of introducing nuclear power to boost reliable and clean energy production, the public as an important stakeholder will continue to seek participation in such decisions – as is their right, and something that the nuclear community must address. As nuclear power is often associated with the dangers of nuclear weapons, governments promoting its use need to reassure publics that their programs are safe. On issues concerning nuclear security, the local community is most likely to be the first to notice if there is something unusual in the vicinity of a nuclear facility. While they do not need to know the details of security procedures and operations, they should know who is responsible for implementing them and under what circumstances they should be contacted. National regulatory authorities must establish procedures whereby operators can develop positive two-way communications with the local public and encourage them to be vigilant. The INSG report continues, “Trust needs to become an integral building block of a comprehensive and successful stakeholder communications program.” A nuclear program shrouded in secrecy effectively disables any and all avenues of communication, thereby increasing mistrust and undermining security.
The need of the hour is move away from the misapprehension that “secrecy equals security.” Finding a balance between legitimate secrecy and transparency may indeed take a long time, but just getting the ball rolling gives immediate results – from reducing suspicions and mistrust to positive signaling about a country’s nuclear program. Responsibly disclosing information will not only enable public participation on issues that affect them, but also dispel rumors and exaggerations that potential adversaries may have had. As Hans M. Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, framed it, “Nuclear transparency is not just about pleasing the arms controllers – it is important for national security.”
*Editor’s note: Writing for the Center’s new Next Up in Arms Control series, Sanaa Alvira is a Certified Nuclear Security Professional from the World Institute for Nuclear Security and a recent graduate from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies with a master’s in Non-Proliferation and Terrorism Studies.