Policy Paper

Nuclear Security in A Time of Crisis

Case studies of crises that impact nuclear security provide important opportunities to learn and build resilience into nuclear facilities and organizations.
By Nickolas Roth  ·  Christopher Hobbs  ·  Daniel Salisbury

While the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted nuclear facilities, it is not the first crisis to do so. This paper will review the findings from the handbook published by Kings College and the Stimson Center, “Nuclear Security in Times of Crisis.” The handbook draws on lessons learned from four case studies that examine what happens to nuclear security during emergencies. Each case varies in terms of cause, scale, and duration, while the lessons are broadly applicable to nuclear facilities and regulatory bodies. Each case identifies steps taken to protect nuclear facilities and identifies areas for improvement.

This policy paper was originally published by the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management and presented at their Annual Meeting, August 23-September 1, 2021


Organizations responsible for reducing the risk of nuclear theft or sabotage must sustain high levels of security at all times. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that this can be particularly challenging during times of crisis.1Christopher Hobbs, Nickolas Roth & Daniel Salisbury (2021) Security Under Strain? Protecting Nuclear Materials During the Coronavirus Pandemic, The RUSI Journal, 166:2, 40-50, Yet, this recent crisis is not the first time nuclear operators have had to provide security during a crisis. Nuclear facilities around the world have had to face political, economic, or societal turmoil, and natural disasters. Nor will this be the last. The effects of climate change, for example—from fires to storms to political instability—will impact ever industry in the world. 

Kings College and the Stimson Center have published a handbook identifying lessons from historical case studies on how to sustain nuclear security during crises.2Geoffrey Chapman, Rebecca Earnhardt, Christopher Hobbs, Nickolas Roth, Daniel Salisbury, Amelie Stoetzel and Sarah Tzinieris, “Nuclear Security in Times of Crisis,” Kings College London and Stimson Center, 2021, The handbook describes how four major crises impacted nuclear facilities: the Cerro Grande wildfire in the United States, the Break-up of the Soviet Union, perceived terrorist threats in Belgium, and Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. These crises have not been chosen to discuss specific nuclear incidents – nuclear accidents, security breaches at facilities or otherwise. Rather, like the Covid-19 pandemic, the cases selected consider the impact of broader events – wildfires, tsunamis, economic and political collapse – that are often external to an individual organisation or even the nuclear sector as a whole – and often have more far-reaching implications. The purpose of these case studies is to consider responses, challenges and opportunities in the organisational context.

What is a crisis?

There are many definitions for a crisis. We use Harmann’s frequently cited definition. ‘An organizational crisis (1) threatens high priority values of an organization, (2) presents a restricted amount of time in which a response can be made, and (3) is unexpected or unanticipated by the organization.’3Charles F. Hermann, ‘Some Consequences of Crisis Which Limit the Viability of Organisations’, Administrative Science Quarterly, 1963, p.61-82.

The cause, scale, and duration of crises vary greatly, but all have common characteristics.  They all challenged nuclear organizations and their ability to meet basic missions goals; developed rapidly and required quick decision-making solutions—with the significance of the threat enhancing the urgency with which the crisis must be addressed; and were all unforeseen or deemed to be so unlikely that they didn’t merit a great deal of consideration, often until it is too late. Nuclear operators, regulators, government agencies, facilities and their personnel – in short all nuclear organisations – must respond to crises whether they are ready or not. Much focus is placed on emergency preparedness and response for nuclear emergencies in the area of nuclear safety.4See for example ‘Preparedness and Response for a Nuclear or Radiological Emergency’, IAEA Safety Standards, No. GSR Part 7, 215. https://www. Similarly, in the area of nuclear security, there has been much consideration of emergency preparedness and response to nuclear security events involving theft, sabotage or material out of regulatory control.5See for example ‘Developing a National Framework for Managing the Response to Nuclear Security Events’, IAEA Nuclear Security Series, No.370G, 2019. The following sections of the paper summarize findings and recommendations from the handbook.

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