Advanced Reactors and Nuclear Terrorism: Rethinking the International Framework

AuthorCameron Tarry Hughes
PositionJ.D. Georgetown University Law Center, 2023
Advanced Reactors and Nuclear Terrorism:
Rethinking the International Framework
Cameron Tarry Hughes*
Nuclear technology. . . embodies a nearly unbelievable power to destroy, but
at the same time an extraordinary power to createto enrich our lives, to pro-
vide the electric power by which we may read at night, to produce potable
water from the ocean’s brine, to help cure deadly diseases, and to enable sci-
ence and industry to advance in innumerable ways that can improve the qual-
ity of life for people in all societies.
Christopher Ford, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, The Promise and
Responsibilities of Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, Remarks to 19th Annual Conference on
Disarmament Issues (Aug. 26, 2007) (transcript available online at
While nuclear energy today provides about 10% of global electricity genera-
tion in reliable, carbon-free form,
Nuclear Electricity, INTL ENERGY AGENCY (Sept. 2022),
the immense destruction tied to its origins
casts a long shadow. Nuclear reactors were first promoted as a means to turn the
terrible power of the atomic weapon into a tool of universal, efficient, and eco-
nomic usage.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Atoms for Peace Speech, Address Before the General Assembly
of the United Nations in New York City (Dec. 8, 1953) (available online at
This tension between terrible and peaceful power underlies the
expansive nonproliferation regime of international law, a framework meant to
keep nuclear technology from being diverted from this peaceful use to weapons-
Now, with the advent of advanced reactorsa new class of nuclear reactor
technology billed as cleaner, cheaper, and safer than traditional reactorsit is
time to ask again: how do we keep this technology from being misused? This
paper will address how advanced reactors will fit into the existing international
legal framework that is meant to combat nuclear terrorism. It will argue that the
international treaties, resolutions, and conventions which safeguard nuclear
* J.D. Georgetown University Law Center, 2023; B.A. University of Virginia, 2018; Student Editor-
in-Chief of the Journal of National Security Law and Policy, vol. 13. This note was adapted from the
author’s dissertation for the diplôme d’université at the International School of Nuclear Law 2021. As
Student Editor-in-Chief of this volume, the author took no part in any stage of the consideration and
selection of this note, which was conducted by the journal’s independent peer review board. The author
sincerely thanks the entire JNSLP staff for their tireless work on both this article and volume 13, as well
as Todd Huntley for his guidance; stewarding the Journal has been the highlight of her law school
career. © 2023, Cameron Tarry Hughes.
technology from terrorist acquisition must be modified to fully account for the
technological differences of advanced reactors from traditional reactors.
Advanced reactors are intended to and likely will be deployed to countries
without existing nuclear programs, countries which may also be outside the realm
of traditional nonproliferation-focused treaties or multistate organizations.
See, e.g. , Alan Ahn, Josh Freed, Jake Kincer, Jessica Lovering, Todd Moss, Ryan Norman, &
Lindsey Walter, 2022 Map of the Global Market for Advanced Nuclear: Emerging International
Demand, THIRD WAY (Oct. 24, 2022)
However, while some reactor designers claim that their design inherently sup-
ports nonproliferation regardless of an external protective regime, the focus of
such saferdesigns is reducing accidents that cause release of radioactive mate-
rial into the environment, either through passive cooling or fuel that withstands
higher temperatures without cracking.
See, e.g., Molten Salt Reactors, WORLD NUCLEAR ASSN, (last
updated May 2021) (When tests were made on the [molten salt reactor], a control rod was intentionally
withdrawn during normal reactor operations at full power (8 MWt) to observe the dynamic response of
core power. Such was the rate of fuel salt thermal expansion that reactor power levelled off at 9 MWt
without any operator intervention.).
Whether such designs inherently make it
more difficult to proliferate nuclear weapons is far less clear; in fact, some
advanced reactor characteristics meant to increase safety likely require more
attention to properly safeguard the technology.
At the same time, although the threat of proliferation has remained steady, the
threat of terrorist acquisition and use of nuclear weapons has increased over the
past few decades. While some states, namely North Korea, Iran, and Syria, have
violated their nonproliferation commitments and tried to acquire nuclear weap-
ons, their neighboring signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty have not fol-
lowed suit.
In preventing widespread acquisition of nuclear weapons, then, the
framework for nonproliferation has worked. On the other hand, terrorist groups
have shown increasing willingness to cause widespread, sometimes indiscrimi-
nate harm compared to their politically targeted 1980s counterparts who targeted
specific political organizations.
Since the turn of the century the world has seen
al Qaeda destroy the World Trade Center, North Caucasus dissidents bomb the
Boston Marathon, and the Islamic State (ISIL) execute coordinated attacks in Paris
in November 2015, among other European incidents in the past decade. Meanwhile,
the International Atomic Energy Agency received reports of 149 incidents of nu-
clear material going missing, some of which directly involved illegal possession of,
and attempts to sell, nuclear material or radioactive sources, with four of these inci -
dents involving nuclear materialbetween 2013-2014 alone.
6. William Tobey, Squaring the Nonproliferation Circle, 26 J. OF INTL SEC. AFFS. 47, 48 (2014).
7. See id. at 48 (citing a 1986 declassified intelligence report and explaining al Qaeda’s willingness to
cause wide damage). But see Christopher McIntosh & Ian Storey, Between Acquisition and Use:
Assessing the Likelihood of Nuclear Terrorism, INTL STUD. Q. 289 (2018) (rejecting the idea that
modern-day terrorists would use nuclear weapons).
8. Peri L. Johnson, Facilitating the Entry into Force and Implementation of the Amendment to the
Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material: Observations, Challenges and Benefits, 94
NUCLEAR L. BULL. 9, 10 n.3 (2014).

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