Project Note

Nuclear Security News and Member Updates, December 2020

Events this past month highlighted the importance of sustainable nuclear security, while states made progress in strengthening regulatory frameworks

Welcome to the New Year! We hope everyone had a relaxing start to 2021. This past year, the two most significant events in nuclear security were an international ministerial focused on strengthening nuclear security and the COVID-19 pandemic that challenged every nuclear security system in the world. In our news roundup for December 2020, countries made progress strengthening their regulatory frameworks around nuclear security, international cooperation continued, and major events occurred that highlight the importance of strong and sustainable security. Additionally, more than 200 people attended the INSF’s first event: a discussion on the evolution of Russian nuclear security. Looking forward, states will gather in 2021 to review the Amended Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and make decisions which will be critical for the future of the international nuclear security architecture.

Join the conversation on Twitter: @INS_Forum

Membership Announcements, Upcoming Events, and Updates


On December 17, the International Nuclear Security Forum (INSF) hosted its inaugural event featuring Russian nuclear security expert Dmitry Kovchegin and INSF Advisory Board Chair Laura Holgate, Ambassador (ret.). Watch the full recording of the event here.

Upcoming Events

The Centre of Science and Security Studies (CSSS) at King’s College London

“Programmatic Building Blocks for Mitigating the Insider Threat” – 28 January 2021, 9:00 AM-10:00 AM GMT – “This presentation will describe common features of insider threat programmes and provide practical measures and resources to build a robust programme to effectively deter, detect, respond, and mitigate insider risk in nuclear and radioactive materials facilities.” Featuring Dr. Christine Noonan, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington: Christine’s research focuses on optimizing security programs, including mitigation of insider threats. In this role she leads a group of threat analysts, polygraph examiners, and support specialists who provide expertise in determining the credibility and seriousness of threats to national security assets. Register for the webinar here.


Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI):

Co-Sponsored by NTI, Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS), Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND), BombShellToe, Organizations in Solidarity, and Gender Champions in Nuclear Policy, the “Empowering New Voices: Re-envisioning Mentorship in the COVID Era” featured a discussion on mentorship in the age of COVID. Held on December 10, this webinar “brought together a diverse set of experts in nuclear policy and international security to lead a conversation around mentorship best practices in a virtual world.” Access the full webinar recording here.

Watch any past NTI events on their YouTube channel here.

The Centre of Science and Security Studies (CSSS) at King’s College London:

On December 2, CSSS hosted a webinar on “Delivering Nuclear Security in South Asia During Times of Crisis.” This event explored how nuclear security as it relates to the protection of sensitive nuclear assets can be effectively implemented during times of crisis with a particular focus on challenges caused by COVID-19 in India and Pakistan. Speakers discussed historical cases where nuclear security systems have been thrown into crisis as a result of political, societal, and economic factors, or natural and manmade disasters. For more information on the webinar, please reach out to Isabel Lucio ([email protected]).

On December 10, the CSSS Nuclear Security Culture Programme (NSCP) hosted a webinar on “Combating the Cyber Insider Threat: An IT perspective.” “This webinar analyse[d] the case of Chelsea Manning and other notable examples [of several high-profile cyber insider incidents] and in doing so, highlights all the security controls that either failed or that were never put in place and that may have prevented such leaks from happening.” Featuring expert Rakesh Burgul: Rakesh has worked in the nuclear sector in the United Kingdom for 33 years and currently works for International Nuclear Services (INS) where he has served as their Chief Information Security Officer (CISO). Watch a full recording of the webinar here.

Watch any past CSSS events on their YouTube channel here. To keep up to date on CSSS events and news, please subscribe to their newsletter here.

Arab Institute for Security Studies (ACSIS)

Over the last three months of 2020, ACSIS hosted several initiatives:

NextGen Track on Nuclear Issues: The institute has organized two events for a mixed group of students from Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Sudan. Topics included nuclear security, nuclear nonproliferation, and nuclear disarmament.

The Amman Security Challenge: This international competition aimed to increase the involvement of professionals in non-conventional issues.

The Nuclear Debate: This is a pioneering program which hopes to involve broader segments of society in nuclear issues. The first nuclear debate session was held in December 2020 with the participation of a live audience. Audience emerged from the debate well informed and better prepared on nuclear issues often considered as taboo.

“Iranian-Israeli Confrontation: The Cyber Domain” by Dr. Gawdat Bahgat

“[R]eported attacks and counterattacks raise concerns about the two nations’ cyber capabilities and how these virtual operations are likely to impact the entire Middle East. This is particularly important, given that cyber warfare lacks well-specified rules.” Read the full article here.

“The Softening Rhetoric by Nuclear-Armed States and NATO Allies on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons” by Tom Sauer and Claire Nardon

“Probably the most iconic moment during the negotiations on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (or “nuclear ban treaty”) was the gathering of a dozen allied ambassadors standing around U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley in the corridors of the U.N. building in New York, protesting against the ongoing negotiations. While nuclear-armed states and NATO allies remain opposed to the treaty, the tone is softening, and at least two NATO allies are breaking the consensus.” Read the full article here.

Member Notes- by Dr. Arlsan Chikhaoui

“Algeria committed to prevent CBRN terrorism and WMD non-proliferation”

“Algerian Government has considered, on 2 December 2020, the creation of a National Committee to assess the risks of financing Weapons of Mass Destruction proliferation and terrorism, and of money laundering. This regulatory and technical tool will let Algeria to reach international standards as part of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) signed in 1995, and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) signed 1975, and the Chemical Weapons Convention signed in 1995, as well as to implement the recommendations of the International Financial Action Group (IFAG). This committee is responsible, in particular, for developing the strategy to combat these three malicious threats. This is in addition to Algerian President decision to set up on 13 June 2020, the National Agency for Health Security dedicated to strategic watch and warning in health security. All this approach of the Algerian Authorities contributes to raise awareness amongst policymakers and civil society on CBRN threats.”

For a full copy of the notes, please contact Becca at [email protected].

Did we miss anything? Please email us your update at [email protected]

Nuclear Security News

Global Governance of Nuclear Security

At the “NP1 – The Nuclear Power Conference Israel – Threats, Challenges, Opportunities” conference, Israel discussed multilateral cooperation on radiological and nuclear security, including an initiative to rank all countries in term of preparedness for a radiological emergency. Overall, the delegates declared that, “International treaties governing nuclear security serve as frameworks based on shared experience, but they are not a substitute for practical and ongoing cooperation.” As part of the conference, Luigi de Dominicis, from the Italian National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development, described European Union collaboration in nuclear security.”

In 2020, the Rwandan government established the Rwanda Atomic Energy Board (RAEB) which will “monitor and coordinate safety and security and support nuclear energy applications for sustainable social-economic development aligned with the National Strategy for Transformation and Vision 2050.” Since 2019, Rwandan nuclear ties to Russia have deepened: Rwandan experts were sent to Russia for nuclear-related studies, and the two countries signed an agreement to establish a Centre for Nuclear Science and Technology to be based in Rwanda.

Morocco also took another step towards modernizing its nuclear liability framework with the assistance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The Moroccan government’s  Nuclear Applications and Safety Division of the country’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Environment issued a joint statement with the IAEA detailing a seminar that sought IAEA feedback on proposed revisions to the 2005 Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Law (No. 12-0202) and to discuss Decree No 2-05-1560 of 21 April 2006, which implements the law. Moroccan officials stated that they have a “clear interest in participating in the modernised nuclear liability instruments.”

Furthermore, Director-General of the Moroccan Agency for Nuclear and Radiological Safety and Security (AMSSNuR) declared Morocco’s continued support of African-Moroccan nuclear security cooperation. Taking place during a technical meeting of states parties to the CPPNM/A, the AMSSNuR Director-General outlined Morocco’s accomplishments in advancing nuclear safety. In June 2021, Morocco will be hosting a workshop on the universalization of the CPPNM/A.

In a major step forward in implementing nuclear security and safety legislation, Jamaica officially launched its Hazardous Substances Regulatory Authority, an independent regulatory body intended to ensure safety and security in the operation of facilities involving ionizing radiation and nuclear technology. This new regulatory body is responsible for implementation and enforcement of the Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection Act of 2015 and the Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection Regulations of 2019, a comprehensive package of legislation that covers, among other things, nuclear security. Jamaica developed this legislation with assistance from the IAEA legislative assistance program.

The U.K. (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy [BEIS]) and Euratom signed an international treaty – a Nuclear Cooperation Agreement (NCA) – solidifying post-Brexit nuclear cooperation and accountability measures for responsible handling of nuclear materials. This treaty will be the centerpiece of post-Brexit nuclear security cooperation between the U.K. and the EU, coming into effect starting on January 1, 2021.

Reducing the Number of Sites

The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and New Mexico officials moved 50 sample containers of plutonium-239 and americium-241 from the Lovelace Biomedical Research Institute (LBRI) in Albuquerque to Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) for processing and disposition. The LBRI requested the assistance of the NNSA because the samples had no “commercial pathway.”

Security for Nuclear Weapons, Weapons-Usable Materials, and Facilities

A Belarussian nuclear power plant in Ostrovets, 50 kilometers from the Lithuanian capital city Vilnius, has experienced three major incidents of equipment failure, as reported by Lithuanian officials. Most notably, the cooling system failed on November 30, but Belarussian officials declined to comment. The nuclear power plant in Ostrovets was in service before implementing any EU or IAEA safety and security recommendations. Lithuania called on EU members to boycott Belarussian electricity produced at the nuclear power plant, emphasizing the immediate safety and security risks of the plant due to its location in an earthquake zone.

COVID-19 continued to impact nuclear operations. During the last week of December, “[t]he National Nuclear Security Administration had more than 300 new confirmed COVID-19 cases last week, including two more fatal cases, a spokesperson said Friday.” This continues the upward trend in the number of COVID-19 cases in the NNSA establishment.

In the United States, Centerra-SRS, the security service for the Savannah River Site (SRS) complex, received an excellent evaluation score from the Department of Energy in a recently released scorecard. Besides two “minor security incidents” and a “motor vehicle accident,” the security force earned high marks. The evaluation was carried out during October, when Centerra-SRS was applauded for maintaining stringent security measures for the sensitive areas of SRS including the K-area (where plutonium is stored), the L-area (where spent nuclear fuel is stored), and the tritium hub. During the pandemic, Centerra-SRS has experienced hundreds of reported COVID-19 cases out of its 11,000 employees. To see the full report card, please visit this link.

On December 16, the White House released “Memorandum on the National Strategy for Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion (Space Policy Directive-6).” “This memorandum establishes a national strategy to ensure the development and use of SNPP [space nuclear power and propulsion] systems when appropriate to enable and achieve the scientific, exploration, national security, and commercial objectives of the United States.” Space Policy Directive-6 stipulates that the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in SNPP systems should be limited to applications for which the mission would not be viable with other nuclear fuels or non‑nuclear power sources. Before selecting HEU or, for fission reactor systems, any nuclear fuel other than low‑enriched uranium (LEU), for any given SNPP design or mission, the sponsoring agency must conduct a thorough technical review to assess the viability of alternative nuclear fuels.

Crisis and Recovery Operations

Chile took part in a social media simulator exercise, developed by the IAEA in coordination with the Chilean Nuclear Commission (CCHEN), simulating social media and public information team responses to a radiological terror attack. CCHEN public information officers were tasked with raking through a torrent of false information, social media posts, and viral stories. This training platform will allow public information teams across the globe to test their team’s capacity and competency in emergency response communications. This training platform could serve as a “best practices generating” tool, allowing teams to tailor their experiences and lessons learned to their own threat environment.

A 6.4 magnitude earthquake centered in Petrinja, Croatia lead to a major national disaster. This earthquake also forced a temporary shutdown of the Krško Nuclear Power Plant located in Slovenia. The Krško Nuclear Power Plant was constructed to withstand up to a 7.9 magnitude earthquake. Following a thorough inspection, no damage was reported, and operators reconnected the nuclear power plant to the electrical grid.

Emerging Technologies

Kromek launched its new radioisotope identification device (RIID) called the D5 RIID. The device is reported to have an extremely low false alarm rate and is suited for use by the military and homeland security. This device is part of a larger series of Kromek technologies that are designed specifically for use in harsh environments. To continue work on this line of detectors, Kromek also won contract extensions worth £460,000 for its ‘dirty bomb’ detector technologies.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) instituted new regulations that allow commercial drones that are used in deliveries to fly over heavily populated areas as long as they broadcast ‘a radio signal with a digital license plate’ and location of the flight. Other regulations passed concern the protection of civilians and motor vehicles from out-of-control drones. Law enforcement officials primary concern was the use of ‘digital license plates’ prior to the broader use of drones over heavily populated areas.


Unknown thieves robbed one of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ rare Il-80 Maxdome “doomsday aircraft,” stealing “radio equipment.” Reporters suspect that the robbery took place at the facility of the Beriev company at Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov since the aircraft was actively undergoing maintenance. Russia’s Interior Ministry spokesperson confirmed that an investigation is underway. Originally constructed in the Cold War, the “doomsday” aircraft earned its name by being designated as the escape transportation for the Russian President should a nuclear war break out. The plane itself is said to withstand nuclear detonation and would serve as the command-and-control post for Russian military operations in a full-on nuclear war.

The Department of Energy and the NNSA announced that parts of their computer networks at Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory were hacked as part of the series of cyber-attacks called SolarWinds.

Insiders featured prominently as threats during December.

A major cryptocurrency heist took place during the last week of December. Cryptocurrency exchange EXMO announced it was hacked and lost approximately 6% of its total reserves. EXMO officials found that it was conducted by an insider as the attacker appeared to have used internal keys to access EXMO’s cryptocurrency servers. “Most of the stolen bitcoin was sent to an address that has accrued 306.99 BTC, worth around $7,206,200 at time of writing.” “EXMO said it contacted cryptocurrency exchange Poloniex with a request to block an associated account and has also informed London police about the breach.”

A report on airport workers also highlighted the danger of disgruntled employees becoming insider threats. A recent report exposed that sanitation and other janitorial staff at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos are suspected of engaging in illicit activities to make a living wage possible. CEO of Centurion Securities, Group Captain John Ojikutu (retired) expressed concern that not properly paying people living wages with such important jobs and access to critical infrastructure could lead to insider threats, noting that these individuals can be co-opted by terrorist or extremist organizations so that they can then access the secure side of airports.

Additionally, the Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed in December that 1 million USD in Iranian currency was stolen in 2019 by a ministry accountant in the middle of the day from the Russian Foreign Ministry. The currency was stored in a vodka box and two diplomatic pouches. Further details on the 2019 incident have yet to be released. Finally, a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) document revealed that a white supremacist group plotted to attack power stations throughout the South-Eastern United States during summer 2021. While the mode of attack, which involved shooting at a power plant, would be unlikely to succeed, the documents reveal that the group discussed purchasing a ranch to use as a militant training base.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices