US commercial and research nuclear facilities remain inadequately protected against two credible terrorist threats – the theft of weapon grade material to make a nuclear weapon, and sabotage attacks intended to cause a reactor meltdown – according to a report by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (NPPP) of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at Texas University.
The report, released on August 15, finds that none of the 104 commercial nuclear power reactors in the US States is protected against a maximum credible terrorist attack, such as the one perpetrated on September 11, 2001. Operators of existing nuclear facilities are not required to defend against the number of terrorist teams or attackers associated with 9/11, nor against airplane attacks, nor even against readily available weapons such as high-power sniper rifles.
The report finds that some US nuclear power plants are vulnerable to terrorist attack from the sea, but they are not required to protect against such ship-borne attacks. Another terrorism danger is posed by three civilian research reactors that are fueled with bomb-grade uranium, which is vulnerable to theft to make nuclear weapons. These facilities are not defended against a posited terrorist threat, unlike military facilities that hold the same material. The facilities are supposed to convert to non-weapons-grade, low-enriched uranium fuel. But they will continue to use bomb-grade uranium for at least another decade according to the latest schedule.
The US government does not require nuclear power plants to be protected from rocket-propelled grenades or .50 caliber rifles with armour piercing shells — weapons that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) initially proposed that plants guard against, but that were removed from requirements after pressure from the nuclear industry to keep costs down.
Coastal nuclear facilities in at least eight states are vulnerable to nautical attacks but are not required to protect against them because the NRC deems airborne and seaborne attacks beyond the design-basis threat.
Report co-author Prof. Alan Kuperman said: "More than 10 years have come and gone since the events of September 2001, and America's civilian nuclear facilities remain unprotected against a terrorist attack of that scale. Instead, our civilian reactors prepare only against a much smaller-scale attack, known as the "design basis threat," while the government fails to provide supplementary protection against a realistic 9/11-type attack. It would be a tragedy if the United States had to look back after such an attack on a nuclear reactor and say that we could have and should have done more to prevent the catastrophe."
The report also notes that some US government nuclear facilities – operated by the Pentagon and Department of Energy – are protected against most or all of the above threats. But other US government nuclear sites remain unprotected against such credible threats because security officials claim that terrorists do not value the sites or that the consequences would not be catastrophic. However the NPPP report argues it is impossible to know which high-value nuclear targets are preferred by terrorists, or which attacks would have the gravest consequences.
The report recommends that Washington require a level of protection at all potentially high-consequence US nuclear targets – including both nuclear power reactors and civilian research facilities with bomb-grade material – sufficient to defend against a maximum credible terrorist attack. To meet this standard at commercial facilities, the NRC should upgrade its "design basis threat," and the US government should provide the requisite additional security that is not supplied by private-sector licensees.
Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that civilian research centres are subject to even fewer security requirements than the nuclear power plants, such as having a trained, armed response force with semi-automatic weapons. If facilities housing the research reactors cannot boost their security, he said, "there is a good case for shutting down research reactors in densely populated areas. It's something the country has ignored for a long time." Since 9/11, Lyman said, seven nuclear research reactors using highly enriched uranium have converted to low enriched uranium but the larger, higher-powered reactors have yet to make the transition.
The NPPP report attracted widespread mainstream media reporting, prompting some unhappy responses from nuclear apologists − one complaining about "gullible reporters" promoting a "student paper". The NRC also responded, challenging some of the claims made in the NPPP report and noting that 'Design Basis Threats' set by the NRC are not made public. That lack of transparency is itself a problem.
Air Force fails drill
Meanwhile, an Air Force unit that oversees one-third of the United States' land-based nuclear missiles has failed a safety and security inspection. Lt. General James Kowalski, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, said a team of "relatively low-ranking" airmen stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, "did not demonstrate the right procedures" in a single exercise.
A statement posted on the command's website said the 341st Missile Wing received an unsatisfactory rating after making "tactical level errors − not related to command and control of nuclear weapons − during one of several exercises conducted during the inspection. This failure resulted in the entire inspection being rated 'unsatisfactory.'" The Air Force is "looking into" the possibility of disciplinary action against the 341st, Kowalski said. The wing did well overall, he said, scoring excellent or outstanding in most of the 13 areas being tested.
In March, the deputy commander of the 91st Missile Wing complained of "rot" in the group after an inspection gave its missile crews the equivalent of a "D" grade on Minuteman 3 launch operations. Although the 91st passed that inspection, the failed simulation of ICBM launch operations resulted in the temporary removal and retraining of 19 personnel. In 2008, the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot failed the nuclear security component of an inspection. The Air Force nuclear mission has hit a number of bumps since 2008, including a B-52 bomber flight over several US states during which the crew was unaware that actual weapons were onboard.
On August 19, a US Air Force crew ejected from a B-1 bomber that ran violently aground during a training flight. The four crew members all sustained "some injuries,".
In January 2013, Energy Department personnel pretending to be terrorists reached a substance representing nuclear-weapon fuel after they fought through defenses in an exercise at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, the Project on Government Oversight reported.
In July 2012, three Plowshares peace activists successfully broke into the Y-12 National Security complex in Tennessee (transformnowplowshares.wordpress.com). The activists − aged 83, 64 and 56 − are in jail in Georgia and face up to 30 years in prison after losing their plea for the most serious charge to be dropped. Sentencing hearings are scheduled in January 2014.
Security review after mass shooting at naval base
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a review of physical security and access at all global US military installations following the mass shootings in Washington on September 17. A government contractor and former Navy reservist is accused of killing 12 civilian workers at the Washington Navy Yard prior to his own shooting death. The security review was ordered following the disclosure that an unpublished Defense Department inspector general's report had concluded that "potentially numerous felons may have been able to gain unrestricted access to several military installations across the country due to the insufficient background checks, increasing the risk to our military personnel and civilian employees."
NRC failing on employee security checks
An audit by the US NRC's Office of the Inspector General, released on September 12, cites concerns with an NRC policy that does not call for punishing personnel who fail to disclose personal circumstances that could raise doubts about whether they can be trusted with access to sensitive nuclear materials.[13,14] NRC employees "rarely comply with personnel reporting responsibilities" that require them to disclose if they are alcoholics or dealers of illegal drugs, the audit states. The Inspector General's audit examined materials from 35 re-investigations of NRC employees, and found over two dozen files with evidence of incidents that "should have been reported" to NRC security officials.
Unaccompanied access to ORNL buildings
As many as 6,400 foreign visitors from China, India, Egypt, Pakistan, and other countries were allowed "unaccompanied access to numerous buildings" at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) according to an Office of Inspector General report released last month.[15,16] ORNL is the nation's central repository for bomb-grade uranium.
Each visiting foreigner is given a plan that lays out in detail where they may go accompanied by their host. But "7 of the 16 hosts we interviewed did not maintain contact with foreign nationals during their entire stay," the report warns, and "these issues have the potential to increase Oak Ridge's security risk that sensitive information and national security assets could potentially be lost or compromised."
Some who were given free rein in the nuclear facility had not even been checked against the Department of Energy's Foreign Access Central Tracking System prior to their arrival in the US. Previous audits highlighted similar issues with unaccompanied foreign nationals that have still not been resolved.
British nuclear police drunk, stoned
In June, documents released under a Freedom of Information Act application revealed that that Police officers with the elite force that guards Britain's nuclear power stations have been caught drunk, using drugs, misusing firearms and also accused of sexual harassment and assault.
In June, UK bomb disposal experts were called to the radioactive waste repository at Drigg, south of Sellafield, after more than 100 unexploded shells were found washed up, creating a mile-wide exclusion zone along the shore. Experts from the Northern Diving Group gathered the shells and pieces together and carried out controlled explosions. The majority of the material was comprised of 12- and 18-inch shells, apparently having been dumped there after World War II.
 Lara Kirkham with Alan J. Kuperman, August 2013, "Protecting U.S. Nuclear Facilities from Terrorist Attack: Re-assessing the Current 'Design Basis Threat' Approach", www.nppp.org, http://blogs.utexas.edu/nppp/files/2013/08/NPPP-working-paper-1-2013-Aug...
 Rebecca LaFlure, 21 August 2013, 'Are civilian nuclear plants vulnerable to terror attacks?' www.publicintegrity.org/2013/08/21/13190/are-civilian-nuclear-plants-vul...
 Rod Adams · August 21, 2013, http://atomicinsights.com/why-did-gullible-reporters-promote-student-pap...
 Robert Lewis, 23 August 2013, 'Security and Nuclear Power Plants: Robust and Significant', http://public-blog.nrc-gateway.gov/2013/08/23/security-and-nuclear-power...
 'In New Setback, Air Force Missile Team Fails Security Drill', 14 August 2013, www.nti.rsvp1.com/gsn/article/safety-and-security-inspection-failed-air-...
 'Crew Escapes U.S. Bomber in Training Crash', 20 August 2013, www.nti.org/gsn/article/crew-escapes-us-bomber-training-crash
 'Mock Terrorists Reach Nuclear Bomb Material in U.S. Facility Drill', 2 August 2013, www.nti.rsvp1.com/gsn/article/mock-terrorists-reach-nuclear-bomb-materia...
 'Nuclear Plant Protesters Denied Request for New Trial', 4 Oct. 2013, www.nti.org/gsn/article/judge-refuses-permit-new-trial-y-12-activists, ...
 'Safety fears over elite police officers drunk on duty at UK's nuclear sites', The Independent, 27 June 2013, www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/safety-fears-over-elite-police-offic...
 "Bomb find ends with a big bang", Whitehaven News, 6 June 2013, www.nwemail.co.uk/bomb-find-ends-with-a-big-bang-1.1060905
 Nuclear Threat Initiative, 18 September 2013, 'Hagel Orders Review of Security at All Military Installations', www.nti.org/gsn/article/navy-head-wants-review-base-security-oct-1/?mgs1...
 Office of Inspector General, Sept 2013, 'Unclassified Foreign National Visits and Assignments at Oak Ridge National Laboratory', http://energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2013/09/f2/INS-O-13-05.pdf
 Alissa Tabirian, 7 Oct 2013, 'OIG: 6,400 Foreigners Had Access to Nuclear Lab's Restricted Areas', http://cnsnews.com/news/article/alissa-tabirian/oig-6400-foreigners-had-...
(Written by Nuclear Monitor editor Jim Green.)
Illicit Nuclear Trade
The Institute for Science and International Security has released a report, 'Future World of Illicit Nuclear Trade: Mitigating the Threat'. Of the roughly two dozen countries that have pursued or obtained nuclear weapons during the past 50 years, almost all of them depended importantly on foreign supplies. The ISIS report assesses that the scourge of illicit nuclear trade appears to be worsening and if left unchecked, it could emerge as one of the most significant global challenges to combating the future spread of nuclear weapons.
Yet, this future world of illicit nuclear trade is not inevitable; the expected trends can be prevented and new threats headed off. The report presents over 100 specific recommendations in the following 15 broad policy areas
1) Build greater awareness against illicit trade
2) Make export controls universal and more effective
3) Promote better enforcement and use of UN, unilateral, and regional sanctions
4) Improve controls over sensitive nuclear information and assets
5) Stop the money flows related to illicit trade
6) Better coordinate prosecutions and more vigorously prosecute smugglers
7) Enhance early detection methods
8) Emphasise interdictions
9) Create a universal standard against illicit nuclear trade
10) Prevent additional developed/industrialised market nations from developing nuclear weapons
11) Reinvigorate a US policy to discourage uranium enrichment and plutonium separation capabilities in regions of tension
12) Gain and verify pledges to renounce illicit nuclear trade
13) Obtain additional state commitments not to proliferate
14) Prevent non-state actors from obtaining nuclear weapons via illicit trade
15) Implement relevant arms control agreements and extend security assurances.
The report is posted at isis-online.org or use this shortcut: tinyurl.com/illicitnukentrade