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Drone strikes against Ukraine’s nuclear reactors highlight risks

WASHINGTON, DC – April 23, 2024 – Proliferation of nuclear weapons, nuclear terrorism, sabotage, coercion and military operations – these risks associated with nuclear energy can all be expected to grow as countries seek to implement their new nuclear energy objectives, according to a new report published today by George Washington University’s (GWU) Sharon Squassoni. 

The aim of 22 countries to triple nuclear energy capacity by 2050, announced on the margins of COP-28, was adopted with little thought to the national security implications. The promotion of small modular reactors (SMRs)– specifically tailored to developing countries – will heighten, not diminish risks. 

The report by GW professor Sharon SquassoniNew Nuclear Energy: Assessing the National Security Risks,” comes as drone strikes against Ukrainian nuclear power plants highlight nuclear reactor vulnerabilities. Other national security risks will accompany significant nuclear growth as renewed interest in nuclear energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions sparks programs across the globe.

Squassoni, a professor at GWU’s Elliott School of International Affairs, now researches risk reduction from nuclear energy and nuclear weapons after serving in the State Department, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and the Congressional Research Service. 

Proliferation and nuclear terrorism are the top two national security risks, but sabotage, coercion and military operations pose other risks. An attempt to reduce dependence on foreign suppliers – a national security risk itself — using nuclear energy could worsen the risk of proliferation by motivating fuel cycle independence. 

SMRs are still in development, with few restrictions on designs. Reactors fueled with highly enriched uranium or plutonium will increase risks of proliferation and terrorism because those materials are weapons-usable. Reactors designed to include lifetime cores will build up plutonium over time. Fast reactor designs that require reprocessing, especially continuous recycling of fuel, could ultimately confer latent nuclear weapons capabilities to many more states. In sum, the kinds of reactors now under consideration do nothing to reduce known risks, and some pose heightened risks. There appears to be no attempt to forge agreement among suppliers or governments to restrict reactor choices that pose greater proliferation risks.

If the mass production of small modular reactors lowers barriers to entry into nuclear energy, there will be many more states deploying nuclear power reactors, including those with significant governance challenges. Russian and Chinese programs to promote nuclear energy target many of those states. Cooperation among key states essential to minimize the safety, security and proliferation risks of nuclear energy is at an all-time low. The call to triple nuclear energy coincides with the disintegration of cooperation, the unraveling of norms and the loss of credibility of international institutions that are crucial to the safe and secure operation of nuclear power.


The report and a streaming version of the news event are available at

The Elliott School is one of the world’s leading schools of international affairs. Located in the heart of Washington, D.C., its mission is to educate the next generation of international leaders, conduct research that advances understanding of important global issues and engage the policy community in the United States and around the world. For more information visit:


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