Last week, the Associated Press revealed how multiple FBI sting operations had stopped smugglers in the former Soviet Union from selling radioactive material on the black market – in particular to terrorists affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Earlier this year, the Center for Public Integrity detailed how an armed, highly coordinated pair of teams successfully broke into a South African site storing nuclear explosives in November 2007, abandoning the raid only after they accidentally ran into a firefighter who was working at the site.
In fact, from 1993 to 2013 there were at least 16 “confirmed incidents” involving the “unauthorized possession of highly enriched uranium or plutonium,” the key ingredients of an atomic bomb, including “attempts to sell or traffic these materials across international borders,” the International Atomic Energy Agency says.
“The existence of this material outside of authorized control is irrefutable evidence of a security failure, and that does need to be recognized,” says William Tobey, former Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration under President George W. Bush, and a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
There are real hurdles to building a nuclear weapon or a dirty bomb, which uses conventional explosives to shower an area with radiation. For all of the Bush administration’s grim warnings of “mushroom clouds” sprouting across major American cities in the years after 9/11, the simple physics remain a challenge.
“It’s a quantity of fissile material, weapons-grade fissile material, that has not been available on the black market,” Tobey says. “It may also be that most terrorists have chosen to pursue other means. In almost all circumstances, the greatest death toll from a dirty bomb would be from the high explosives, not the radiological material.”
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Security has also improved, especially compared to the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. President George H.W. Bush launched nuclear security initiatives with Russia that expanded under his son and President Bill Clinton, and which also were later a focus of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The world Nuclear Security Summit that President Barack Obama first hosted in 2010 has also helped tighten control of radioactive material.
“It’s like night and day, 1991 to now,” Tobey says.
Still, significant problems remain. As recently as June, the companies that run Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories – two of the nation’s three nuclear laboratories – were slapped with six-figure fines by the Justice Department for mishandling classified material, including information on bomb design.
In 2012, former security lieutenant Clifton Travis sued Indian Point nuclear power plant outside New York City, alleging a range of lapses from sleeping guards to unreliable security software that allowed simulated terrorists during a 2011 drill to trigger what would have been “a complete meltdown resulting in absolute devastation,” court documents said.
The fortunate reality is that most nuclear plants – most sensitive sites overall, whether a submarine base or chemical refinery – will never come under siege. But that creates its own challenge: complacency.
“Anytime you’re trying to maintain security where you could go for your entire career and never see a terrorist attack, that’s always going to be a huge challenge,” says Charles Faddis, a former CIA officer who now runs Orion Strategic Services, a security contractor that’s consulted with nuclear plants and other sensitive sites. “It would be unfair that nobody’s doing anything, and I don’t want to suggest that, but the security is insufficient.”
But, he adds, “you better be serious about security, because the consequences are almost unimaginable if you get it wrong.”