We Are Failing at Nuclear Security

By William H. Tobey
Next month, top leaders from over 50 countries will meet at the 2014 Hague Nuclear Security Summit.  The leaders’ fundamental goal remains to prevent nuclear terrorism by implementing effective security at all sites that store or process nuclear weapons or fissile materials, or which operate nuclear reactors.

Arguably, the threat of nuclear terrorism is much diminished.  Al Qaeda, which avowed an interest in obtaining and using nuclear weapons, is fragmented.  Bin Laden is dead.  Enormous progress has been made in securing nuclear weapons and fissile materials.  The Bratislava Initiative completed physical security upgrades at 148 Russian nuclear sites in 2008.  Twenty-seven countries have eliminated all nuclear weapons-usable material from their soil, twelve since the Nuclear Security Summit process began.  A strengthened International Atomic Energy Agency issued new physical security recommendations in 2011, and since 2008, the World Institute for Nuclear Security has promoted the sharing and implementation of best practices in nuclear security. 

Our enemies are weaker and our defenses are stronger.  Complacency, however, would be a grave, perhaps fatal error.  Indeed, complacency is anathema to effective security.  How then are we doing in our efforts to secure fissile material from theft?  Experience tells us not well.  Indeed, we are failing. 

In twenty known cases over the past twenty years, officials have seized plutonium or highly enriched uranium outside of authorized control.  The most recent such cases were in 2003, 2006, 2010, and 2011.  In the 2011 case, six people in Moldova were arrested with 4.4 grams of highly enriched uranium (HEU).  The smugglers claimed to have access to 9 kilograms of HEU. 

While none of these incidents involved enough material to make a nuclear weapon, they are important for two reasons.  First, in many instances, the seized material was advertised as a sample of a larger quantity for sale; material which, if it exists, authorities have never recovered.  Second, the presence of fissile material outside of security measures is physical evidence of failure that might be recurring.  In only one of the cases do we know the site where the material was stolen.  We also do not know who took the material, how they got it off the site, or whom they planned to sell it to.  If we do not know which facility the material was taken from or the answers to the other relevant questions, how can we have any confidence that the problem has been corrected?

Broken chain-link fence at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge Tenn. (AP photo)

A second category of evidence of failure is created by security near misses.  Two incidents in particular should raise serious questions about the effectiveness of measures to protect fissile material—not only at those sites, but also around the world.

In 2007, at Pelindaba, South Africa, intruders launched two attacks within minutes of each other on a site housing hundreds of kilograms of HEU; one group penetrated to a control center where a facility employee was shot. In 2012, four months after the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, an 82-year-old nun and two senior citizen accomplices broke into the Y-12 National Security Complex, which houses the central U.S. repository for weapons-grade uranium. Later investigations revealed deep failures in the security culture at Y-12—a facility once thought to be among the best run in the U.S. nuclear weapons infrastructure.

Both Pelindaba and Y-12 were thought by their governments to be secure.  That confidence led to complacency.  Complacency caused failure.  Very likely, this dynamic is occurring in other states with nuclear weapons and material.  There is no reason to assume that the security the cultures in South Africa and the United States are worse than they are in the rest of the world.

Leaders at the Hague Nuclear Security Summit will consider options to improve the regulation, management, and implementation of effective nuclear security.  But they need to be motivated to take difficult steps—to change standard operating procedures, close unneeded facilities, and spend money on sustaining security measures.  The first step is to recognize the hard truth of our experience over the past several years.  Despite a lot of good work, all too often, we are failing at nuclear security.

Click here to read an expanded version of this article at the European Leadership Network

William Tobey is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.  From 2006-2009, he was a deputy administrator of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration.