Project Note

Nuclear Security News and Member Updates Roundup, January 2021

January 2021 was a stark reminder of the need for strong and sustainable security in a world of constantly evolving threats

Dear International Nuclear Security Forum members, 

I hope everyone had a happy and healthy new year. The first month of 2021 was, unfortunately, a stark reminder of the need for nuclear operators to ensure strong and sustainable security in a world of constantly evolving threats. In the United States, we had significant and very public non-nuclear security incidents involving cyber-attacks, insider threats, and a nearly catastrophic security system failure. These examples, and others we highlight in the Forum, should serve as both warnings and cases studies to help prevent nuclear theft and sabotage. Yet, this year there are important opportunities to make progress on nuclear security, from renewing leadership to strengthening international architecture. We look forward to working with all of you in these endeavors. 


Nickolas Roth and Becca Earnhardt

International Nuclear Security Forum

Join the conversation on Twitter: @INS_Forum

Nuclear Security News

Global Governance of Nuclear Security

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Office of Legal Affairs concluded their first webinar series on nuclear law. “The series covered the four main branches of international and national nuclear law: nuclear safety, security, safeguards and civil liability for nuclear damage. Devised as an online alternative to some of the Office of Legal Affairs’ training activities, the interactive Webinar Series amassed over 2500 streams, with participation from officials with policy, legal, regulatory and technical backgrounds from over 100 countries.” Read more about the webinar series and access related resources here.

Reducing the Number of Sites

In a move towards increasing domestic molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) production while reducing highly enriched uranium (HEU) use, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted a Prior Approval Supplement to NorthStar’s original application for the RadioGenix System’s process of using concentrated Mo-98 (cMo-98) technology to produce Mo-99. The United States has historically been reliant on Mo-99 for radiopharmaceuticals, but, in a 2009 project launched by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the United States has been working towards creating a sustainable Mo-99 supply that does not rely on HEU in production.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) and Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) completed a multi-year effort to remove 161 kg of HEU from Chalk River Laboratories in Ontario, Canada and transported it to the Savannah River Site (SRS). 115 separate shipments brought the HEU residue, a by-product of medical isotope manufacturing, back to the United States as part of the U.S.-origin Foreign Research Reactor Spent Fuel Acceptance Program.

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

The legislature in North Dakota passed bill SB2116 which allows guardsmen, “to use deadly force to protect nuclear weapons from theft, sabotage, destruction, or other threats to the devices and those protecting them.” Currently guardsmen are not authorized to use deadly force to protect nuclear weapons under state law, but they are authorized to do so under federal law when they are given temporary status as federal officers.

The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) issued major updates to health and safety rules requiring certified workers at nuclear facilities to undergo pre-employment, reasonable cause, post-accident, and random drug and alcohol testing. These regulations were promulgated following extensive study and consultation with nuclear site operators. High security nuclear licensees must implement the regulations within 12 months.

In a recent article in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dr. Mareena Robinson Snowden takes a critical look at how the nuclear community has responded to institutional racism and how racism in the community manifests. In particular, the author focuses on how the Gender Champions initiative can be leveraged to support anti-racism efforts in the nuclear community. Dr. Snowden argues for anti-racism interventions that are tailored to the community. Having these conversations would be critical to shifting the perspectives on racism in the nuclear field.

Crisis and Recovery Operations

During the SolarWinds cyberattack, hackers, “gained clear access to the networks of at least two OEMs [Original Equipment Manufacturers] who supply power companies and update their controls and systems on an ongoing basis.” Reflecting on the 2015 and 2016 Ukrainian nuclear power plant hacks, author Roy Morrison argues that the movement to distributed and decentralized electrical “micro-grids” could help prevent catastrophic failure of power generation should a critical control system be hacked.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)  in New Mexico reported 15 COVID-19 cases between December 29 and January 3. Ten of the cases were Nuclear Waste Partnership (NWP) employees; three cases were NWP subcontractors; and there was one case each at the Department of Energy Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO) and a CBFO subcontractor. The workers who tested positive for coronavirus were last at the site between March 24 and December 28. As of January 5, 177 WIPP workers infected with COVID-19 had recovered.

Emerging Technologies

The outgoing Trump Administration promulgated two notable executive orders that may impact nuclear security in the United States. One executive order seeks to promote small modular reactors for defense and space applications. The executive order requires the Secretary of Defense to, “establish and implement a plan to demonstrate the energy flexibility capability and cost effectiveness of a Nuclear Regulatory Commission-licensed micro‑reactor at a domestic military installation.” The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Administrator is required to define future requirements for space based nuclear energy systems. In addition, the Secretary of Energy must complete the high-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU) demonstration project, “of a United States-origin enrichment technology capable of producing HALEU for use in defense-related advanced reactor applications.” The second executive order focused on supply chain and manufacturing security for unmanned aerial systems, and ordered the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to create new regulations that restrict unmanned aerial system (UAS) use on or above critical infrastructure or sensitive sites, such as nuclear power plants.


Robbers posing as hitchhikers stole over 2.5 million USD in cash from a cash-in-transit vehicle after the thieves were picked up from the side of the road by the vehicle’s operators. When the suspects pulled over their car, they were confronted by one of the security guards in the vehicle. The suspects subdued the security guard, and took off in an unknown model Toyota.

An airport security officer who previously worked at the Dunedin International Airport in New Zealand has been sentenced to three years in jail following his conviction for placing a fake bomb on airport grounds two days following the Christchurch mosque attacks. The security officer, who taught airport staff how to screen for unauthorized restricted items like explosive devices, claims to have voiced concerns about lax security at the site multiple times prior to placing the fake bomb to emphasize the gaps in security measures.

The January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol building highlighted a variety of threats, ranging from growing far-right accelerationist affiliations in security forces and inadequate vetting procedures, to cybersecurity during physical breaches.

Following the attack on the U.S. capitol, the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General launched an investigation into the implementation of department policies that prohibit service members from participating in white supremacist and other criminal organizations. Additionally, the Department of Defense announced that it removed 12 National Guard troops from inauguration duty: two of them because of inappropriate comments or texts related to extremism. The two flagged for extremism were from different states. It is of note that neither were flagged by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) vetting process used for the inauguration. Instead, one was reported by their unit after exhibiting concerning behavior while the other was reported anonymously. In another example of a potential vetting failure, Ashli Babbitt, the woman shot and killed by police while attempting to break into the Speaker’s Hallway during the storming of the U.S. capitol on January 6. Babbitt worked at the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant from 2015 to 2017.

In an article published by SC Media, cybersecurity expert Gregory Conti reflected on how the ransacking of the U.S. capitol could also pose a serious cybersecurity breach. Conti suggested that people seeking sensitive or classified information may have used the crowd as cover so they could access congressional electronics; intruders may have installed surveillance devices on networks or in offices; classified material may have been stolen. The level of cyber damage will depend on the security culture in place at the capitol. The level of damage, if any, remains unknown.

In a piece for The Washington Post, Professor Jayita Sarkar argues that the threat of domestic nuclear terrorism is not taken seriously enough in the United States, arguing that Biden administration officials must move, “beyond a one-dimensional understanding of terrorism as the violent threat of radical Islam, and better understanding the different ways in which far-right domestic terrorism has grown in the United States and the specific threats this brings.” She points to the significant role nuclear weapons play in overthrowing the federal government in The Turner Diaries, known as the “bible” of the far-right. In addition, Professor Sarkar points to the significant insider threat posed by these groups as they actively attempt to recruit members of the U.S. military and law enforcement. Professor Sarkar advocates for, “screening far-right extremists within government institutions at local, state and federal levels needs to be a priority for the Biden administration.” A surface moisture-temperature gauge containing cesium-137 (Cs-137) and americium-241 (Am-241) was stolen from a residential driveway in West Memphis, Arkansas. State and federal law enforcement and public health officials were notified of the theft. Neither the gauge nor the radioactive sources have been found. A statement from the Arkansas Department of Health says: “The gauge contains approximately 8 millicuries Cesium-137 and 40 millicuries Americium-241. The gauge is used to take moisture and density measurements by projecting radiation from the two radioactive sources into the ground and then displaying the amount of radiation reflected back to the gauge.” Public health authorities maintain that the risk to public safety is low, but could pose a potential radiation hazard if the sources are removed from the gauges.

Membership Announcements, Upcoming Events, and Updates


Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI):

NTI recently published December 2020 Nuclear Security Index Country Updates. To see the full list of actions countries have taken since the 2020 Nuclear Security Index was published, please follow this link. If you are interested in more analysis of the 2020 Nuclear Security Index, you can read the following selections: For an excerpt of the 2020 Nuclear Security Index, please follow this link. To view the “Radioactive Source Security Assessment Excerpt,” please visit this link.

Watch any past NTI events on their YouTube channel here.

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

On January 28, CSSS hosted a webinar titled “Programmatic Building Blocks for Mitigating the Insider Threat.” “This presentation…describe[d] 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. View the webinar on the CSSS YouTube channel.

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.

The Henry L. Stimson Center

Stimson Nuclear Security Program Director and INSF Director Nickolas Roth, Research Associate Becca Earnhardt, and former Nuclear Security Program Intern Brendan Hyatt published an article in the Bulletin titled “A threat to confront: far-right extremists and nuclear terrorism.” “Acts of violence by far-right extremists are on the rise in the United States. Until now, most of these incidents have lacked sophistication, but a critical question for national security experts is whether US far-right extremist groups that espouse violence can carry out something catastrophic.” To read the full article, please follow this link.

Nickolas Roth recently published a policy memo for Stimson’s Presidential Inbox series titled “U.S. Priorities for Reducing the Risk of Nuclear Terrorism.” “The Biden administration can take critical steps to ensure states stay ahead of the constantly evolving threat of nuclear terrorism by increasing nuclear security program funding, engaging with countries that face significant risks, and strengthening international treaties around nuclear security.” To read the full memo, please visit this link.

Becca Earnhardt and Nickolas Roth also published commentary covering “Nuclear Security in Review, 2020.” “Nuclear operators and regulators faced unprecedented challenges over the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic not only tested nuclear security systems, but also international institutions dedicated to reducing nuclear terrorism threats. Looking forward, the upcoming Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material and Amendment (CPPNM/A) Review Conference will provide an opportunity for states to share lessons learned and how international institutions can be better prepared for the next crisis.” To read the full article, please click here.

Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP)

On November 24, VCDNP hosted a workshop titled “Assessment of the Current Landscape of Peaceful Uses and Nuclear Security: Challenges and Opportunities.” “Given the challenges facing the world today, more can and should be done to tap into the potential of nuclear technologies and their power and non-power applications to find sustainable solutions to global problems, such as climate change and development. As part of an ongoing project on the nexus between peaceful uses and nuclear security, on 24 November 2020 the VCDNP convened a high-level panel to discuss the challenges and opportunities to expanding the safe, secure and sustainable application of peaceful nuclear technologies to this end.”

To read the recently published workshop report, please follow this link. To read the accompanying workshop discussion paper by VCDNP Senior Research Associate Ingrid Kirsten, please visit this link.

“Отойти от пропасти” (U.S.-Russian Nuclear Relations: Can Shared Interests Lead to Joint Action?) by Anton Khlopkov William Potter

Khlopkov and Potter discuss how to move forward U.S.-Russia cooperation on nuclear issues, including shared nuclear threats and parallel threat assessments. The English version of the article is attached to the newsletter email. To read the Russian language version in Kommersant here.

“Getting State Back into Nuclear Arms Control and Nonproliferation” by Laura Kennedy

Kennedy addresses a key question: “How prepared is the State Department to deal with [nuclear] issues?” Focusing on the role of U.S.-Russia cooperation and multilateral engagement, Kennedy outlines ways in which the State Department can adapt to a rapidly shifting threat environment. Read the full article here.

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

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