What Happens When A Drone Comes For A Nuclear Reactor?

How seriously, exactly, should a nuclear reactor take the threat from a quadcopter?

This question sits at the center of a long investigation by The War Zone, built upon a trove of documents about a curious pair of incidents in September 2019. As the authors report:

  • This particular story starts on Sept. 29, 2019. Shortly before 11:00 PM local time at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, Daphne Rodriguez, an Acting Security Section Chief at the plant, called the duty officer at NRC’s Headquarters Operations Center (HOC). Rodriguez reported that a number of drones were flying over and around a restricted area near the nuclear power plant’s Unit 3, which houses one of its three pressurized water reactors.

The observed drone flights on September 29th were followed by multiple reported sightings on the night of September 30th. The full tale, about what action was taken, and what risks were prioritized, is worth reading in full, as it gives a deep sense of prioritization and uncertainty in the face of novel concern.

What I found fascinating reading it is the way this was all foreshadowed, half a decade ago, by a series of incidents in France.

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In 2014, a series of drones buzzed nuclear reactors in France. While environmental activists were accused and hobbyists detained, little came of the arrests. At the time, much was made of the unique way drones could threaten nuclear power plants. Cheap, small, and expendable, commercial, hobbyists drones are hard to see on radar, and, especially in 2014, few technologies existed to reliably detect or disable drones. Reactors and power plants are large facilities, and cameras built to record movement on the ground are especially oblivious to flying objects.

All of this makes drone surveillance of a facility a hard threat to identify or stop, without specific countermeasures. But the presence of drones shouldn’t automatically register as a kind of apocalyptic threat. As Newsweek noted in late 2014, the main risk drones posed to nuclear reactors is scouting paths for humans seeking to do harm. While in the five and a half years since people have gotten better at putting explosives on drones, the small size and limited flight times means a few pounds of explosive is, presently, the scariest payload a drone can carry.

That isn’t nothing, but reactors are built of thick concrete, and designed to withstand much larger impacts than a hobbyist drone. Specifically, reactors have been built and maintained with the notion that the reactor part should be able to keep functioning even if a plane crashes into it.

As The War Zone notes, a drone doesn’t have to break a reactor for it to cause problems and disruptions at such a power plant. Drone detection technologies, abundant in 2020 in a way they simply were not in 2014, could provide a start for keeping an eye on weird flights near critical infrastructure. Automated disabling systems, from jammers to directed energy weapons to electronic warfare tools to, even, guns mounted on turrets are all possibilities in hardening reactors specifically against drone intrusions.

Yet the technology most worth watching isn’t the countermeasures so much as it is the kinds of cheap drone available. Presently most drones available for anybody can either be directly piloted or set on a preset path of waypoints. Should drones gain longer flight times, greater route autonomy, and especially, an ability to carry larger, heavier payloads without losing much flight time, those would be the factors that should suggest a rethink of infrastructure hardening.

In the meantime, reactor security will likely rest in the strength of the infrastructure as it was built, rather than as it has been hardened.

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