The Unexpected Threat to America's Nuclear Sites


Decades after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. is dealing with a different nuclear threat: the security of its own nuclear sites. But the problem is more complicated than you might think.

The University of Texas, Austin Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (NPPP) recently released a report stating that none of the 104 commercial nuclear reactors or three research reactors in the U.S. is adequately protected against terrorist threats. The report cites two “credible threats: the theft of bomb-grade material to make a nuclear weapon, and sabotage attacks intended to cause a reactor meltdown.”

There are a couple of important points to make about this assessment. Specifically, it’s important to consider not only how devastating such an attack would be (in this case, very) but also how likely it is in order to determine how much to focus on this specific threat.

Terrorist attacks on the U.S. in general are pretty rare: according to Time, the odds of dying in a terrorist attack in the U.S. from 2007-2011 were one in 20 million. Add to that the fact that we are talking about a very particular kind of terrorist attack, nuclear terrorism, and the number is bound to get even lower.

There are only nine nuclear-armed states in the world (eight with confirmed tests, but it is widely believed that Israel has also successfully developed nuclear weapons.) That is out of nearly 200 countries in the world. A couple of different factors keep that number so low.

There is the case of South Africa, which once had a nuclear weapons program but dismantled it voluntarily to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear armed state.

Then there is the concept of a “nuclear umbrella.” Basically, this means that certain countries have sufficient confidence in their nuclear-armed allies to aid them in a nuclear conflict that they don’t feel the need to possess the weapons themselves.

But another factor for many states is the fact that developing nuclear warheads is that building a nuclear weapon requires materials that may be difficult to obtain, expertise, and resources. However, once a group has fissile material, intelligence estimates say that they would only need relatively basic machinery to construct a crude bomb.

There has been some debate over whether a terrorist group could construct a delivery system akin the missiles nuclear-armed states would use, but they probably would have no reason to: A nuclear bomb can be small enough to fit in the back of a truck. If you are already in the country you want to bomb, drive it to your chosen target, park, and get out of there.

Another scenario would be the construction of a “dirty bomb,” a conventional explosive coupled with radioactive material. When the explosive goes off, the radioactive material is dispersed. The real kicker is that for a dirty bomb, you don’t even need the fissile material the authors of the NPPP report are worried about getting stolen. Nuclear waste, or even radioactive materials from, for example, hospitals, medical waste facilities, some construction sites, food irradiation facilities, or an array of research facilities could also do the trick, and would be much easier to obtain.

The good(ish) news about that is that dirty bombs would not cause anywhere near the same level of destruction. The more long-term effect would be that such a bomb going off could render the area around it uninhabitable for a period that could range from several months to several years.

The UT report also delves into the issue of sabotage, which they use to cover both the possibility of an attack on a nuclear facility like a plane crashing into it, vehicle bombs, anti-tank weapons, or disrupting the functioning of the reactor internally, by entering and disabling pumps, for example.

The latter example would most likely be dependent upon insider assistance of some sort.

At least the security protocol at our military nuclear facilities is really solid…Except for that time in 2007 when the Air Force accidentally transported six armed nuclear warheads from North Dakota to Louisiana. 

The actual plan was for the Air Force to move non-nuclear armed missiles between the two bases, but the missiles were not checked properly, resulting in armed nuclear warheads being flown across the country with no one the wiser. They then sat without the special guard required for nuclear weapons on the runway overnight before the mistake was finally discovered.

More recently, the Air Force stripped 17 officers of the authority to oversee nuclear weapons, more than have ever been removed from such a duty in the past. This was after the same North Dakota base involved in the 2007 debacle received a “D” on a preparedness test. (Interestingly enough, the Air Force had publicly described the inspection as a success.)

So what should we do? For civilian sites, the UT report makes a number of suggestions. To lessen the chance of sabotage, nuclear facilities should have stricter screening processes for their employees and emphasizing security procedures. They also recommend that the government work with private companies to ensure that the physical security of their facilities is as good as government sites. 

The security of military nuclear bases is perhaps more problematic in part because the role of nuclear weapons in the future of American defense policy remains uncertain. In the years since the Cold War, the strategic focus on nuclear weapons has shifted. As a result, it proves for officers stationed at nuclear bases to advance. The idea that working on those bases has become a dead-end job lowers morale and can ultimately lead to the kind of carelessness that became apparent in 2007 and again earlier this year.