Caroline Baylon
Caroline Baylon
Former Research Associate, Science, Technology, and Cyber Security, International Security Department
Drone technologies may offer solutions to the very security vulnerabilities they have exposed in the nuclear industry – and to other challenges in the field as well.
Vapor rises from EDF's nuclear power plant in Bugey, France on 5 January 2014. Photo by Getty Images.

The growing uptake of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), brings both unprecedented challenges and opportunities. Drones simultaneously represent a threat to privacy and a potential commercial boon (e.g. for parcel delivery); they serve concomitantly as weapons and as vital tools of military intelligence. This same mix of threat and opportunity is apparent in the nuclear industry. Drones pose important security challenges to nuclear power plants. Yet if the technology is harnessed properly, drones might not only be able to solve the problems they have created but also provide additional security benefits.

Illicit drone flights over nuclear power plants in France and Belgium in recent months – along with similar incidents in the United States that were not made public – have revealed the lack of adequate defences against drones at nuclear facilities. Shooting drones down is difficult and jamming them risks interfering with nuclear plant operations. Conventional radar cannot detect small drones that fly low to the ground. Moreover, UAVs could carry payloads capable of damaging spent fuel pools.

However, last week news media reported on a prototype for an ‘intercept drone’ designed to take down other drones. The intercept drone has cameras pointing in all directions that scan for nearby drones. It then flies above a target drone, dropping a cord that tangles the target drone’s rotor blades and causes it to crash. While the company’s marketing strategy is focused on celebrities and others concerned with protecting their privacy, such devices could potentially also be used by the nuclear industry to prevent drone flyovers.

The technology is still in an early phase, and has a number of challenges to overcome. The speed, agility and real-time image processing required to catch the target drone drains battery power rapidly, giving the intercept drone a flight time of about two minutes. The technology is also ineffective against ‘fixed wing’ drones that lack rotor blades. And using them over nuclear plants would be risky. The target drone would need to be taken down before it reached the plant perimeter, as a crash over the plant itself could damage equipment on the ground. Nonetheless, the concept holds promise.

Beyond enabling the interception of drone flyovers, new drones fitted with devices such as cameras, radiation sensors and heat sensors have applications in perimeter monitoring, radiation detection and disaster response. They can provide a complement to current perimeter monitoring measures at nuclear facilities. Most nuclear plants use a combination of CCTV cameras and vehicle and foot patrols to monitor for unauthorized intrusions or other anomalies. However, CCTV coverage may have ‘blind spots’. Patrols cannot always be present given the size of nuclear facilities, or access certain areas either by vehicle or by foot. Several UK nuclear facilities are evaluating the use of camera drones to provide coverage to fill these gaps.

Drones can also supplement radiation monitoring at nuclear plants. Nuclear facilities currently use static monitoring points to detect radiation leaks.  However, they do not offer complete coverage and are susceptible to false alarms. For example, a static monitoring point recently detected radiation at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site in Britain, causing the facility to shut down temporarily. However, the radiation was later found to be from a naturally occurring source outside the site, having been blown in by the wind. In such an instance, using new drones equipped with radiation sensors could rapidly and more accurately identify the source, thus avoiding a costly shutdown.

Furthermore, UAVs can be used in disaster response and clean-up operations at nuclear facilities where it would not be safe to send a human. Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown, responders initially relied on manned helicopters to gather radiation, imaging and temperature data – the tsunami destroyed 23 of the plant’s 24 static monitoring points – to evaluate the effectiveness of efforts to cool the reactors. This exposed the crew to radiation. Drones outfitted with sensors and cameras were subsequently deployed, as unmanned aircraft can safely get much closer to the ground and thus provide more accurate and detailed readings and imaging. They can be operated from up to 10 kilometres away, and their relatively low cost also means they can be replaced if they become contaminated. Several new models are currently being tested in the ongoing clean-up operations.

Drones currently represent equal parts threat and opportunity for nuclear facilities. Given that drone capabilities are increasing rapidly, the effects of whichever predominates now will be amplified in the future. It is thus essential to tip the balance in favour of UAV technologies that will enhance nuclear security and safety.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback