Who is Outrider?

Outrider believes that the global challenges we face together must be solved by working together.

Among the greatest threats to the future of humankind are nuclear weapons and global climate change. Outrider makes the bold claim that both threats can be overcome — and not just by policy makers but by people with the right tools and inspiration.

Smugglers, Thieves, and Terrorists

If terrorists get their hands on nuclear materials, we’re all in danger.

The most urgent unmet national security threat to the U.S. today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists.

Report by a bipartisan Department of Energy task force from 2001

When the Cold War ended, many people believed the world was finally safe from nuclear weapons. But in the chaos that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a new threat emerged: nuclear terrorism. The threat has only grown more dire in recent decades. If terrorists were to get their hands on nuclear materials, they could cause death and destruction on a whole new scale.

Each year, more than 100 thefts and incidents involving radioactive materials are reported.

This is not a far-off scenario. Today, nuclear technology is used all over the world. But not every nuclear facility has proper security. Each year, more than 100 thefts and incidents involving radioactive materials are reported. Some are minor, but others are troubling. Criminals were recently caught trying to sell highly enriched, bomb-grade nuclear materials in Moldova and Georgia. Armed intruders broke into a nuclear site in South Africa. A hacker tried to sabotage a power reactor in Lithuania. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

What does nuclear terrorism look like?

So far, we have not seen a terrorist group pull off a nuclear or radiological attack—but there are several ways it could happen. They could steal a bomb, build one, attack a nuclear facility, or make a “dirty bomb” from stolen radioactive material.

Obtaining a nuclear weapon from a country’s stockpile is hard to do—but not impossible. To date, no nuclear bomb has been known to have been stolen, and most are held in highly secure military sites.

A terrorist group could also try to build a nuclear bomb using stolen highly-enriched uranium or plutonium. In one worrisome incident in 2001, the former head of Pakistan’s Khushab Plutonium Reactor met with Osama bin Laden to discuss how al-Qaeda might obtain a nuclear bomb.

A gloved hand opens a container with a vial of gold material.

A vial containing cesium-135 was found in the car of smuggling suspect Valentin Grossu following his arrest in Chisinau, Moldova.

AP Images

Attacking a nuclear power plant would also be difficult—but less so. Terrorists could find a way to sabotage a plant, causing radiation to escape into the environment. In 1992, for example, a hacker named Oleg Savchuk was arrested for trying to sabotage the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant in Lithuania using a computer virus. Other people have successfully broken into reactors and attempted to damage them with explosives, but so far none of these attacks caused a major release of radioactivity.

Workers in dark clothes walk two by two from a large tan drab looking building.

Workers leave the Ignalina nuclear power plant in Visaginas, Lithuania. In 1992, a programmer named Oleg Savchuk was charged with attempting to sabotage the reactor with a computer virus.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

But the most likely scenario for a nuclear terror attack is a radiological dispersal device, known as a “dirty bomb.” Terrorists could use small amounts of highly radioactive material combined with conventional explosives to create a device that contaminates large areas with harmful radiation. While this wouldn’t produce a nuclear blast, it would cause severe damage.

A history of close calls

Theft and smuggling of nuclear and radioactive material happen more often than you might think. As of December 2015, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had recorded 762 instances of loss or theft, and 454 instances of unauthorized possession.

Aerial view of the Pelindaba Nuclear Research Center in South Africa's North West Province.

Pelindaba Nuclear Research Center in South Africa's North West Province. Armed men infiltrated the Center in 2007 but did not leave with any nuclear materials. 

NJR ZA / Wikimedia

Some of the most worrying incidents happened during and after the breakup of the former Soviet Union, which left scores of nuclear sites vulnerable. But it’s not only ex-Soviet sources that we need to worry about. We’ve also seen dangerous incidents in South Africa, Iraq, and Japan, and elsewhere.

Nuclear Incidents, 1992 - Today

Armed men break into the Pelindaba Nuclear Plant

Pelindaba, South Africa | November 8, 2007

Four armed men broke into the nuclear research center which houses both a research reactor and bomb-grade uranium. Two employees were assaulted, and one shot. The attackers escaped and no nuclear materials were stolen.

A string of nuclear smuggling in Moldova

Chisinau, Moldova | 2010-2015

Moldova saw four major nuclear smuggling cases in five years—uranium in three cases, cesium in one. Authorities were unable to identify the sources of the stolen materials.

Sabotage of a nuclear power plant

Antwerp, Belgium | August 5, 2014

In what appears to be an act of sabotage by one or more as yet unidentified insiders, the turbine of the Doel-4 nuclear power plant was destroyed by draining it's lubricating oil. The ensuing repair cost and losses due to the reactor's four months shutdown exceeded 100 Million Euros.

Ukrainian criminals attempt to smuggle uranium to Romania

Vorokhta, Ukraine | August 5, 2015

Police arrested four members of a criminal organization for attempting to sell Uranium-238. They were caught after one tried to smuggle the materials across the Ukraine-Romania border.

Cyber attack at Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant

Visaginas, Lithuania | February 1992

Oleg Savchuk, a computer programmer, was arrested after trying to sabotage the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant with a computer virus.

Inside job goes virtually unnoticed at Chepetsky Mechanical Plant

Glazov, Russia | 1992 - 1995

Workers at the Chepetsky Mechanical Plant stole small amounts of LEU, eventually accumulating a large stash. After the arrests, around 300 kilograms of LEU was reported missing.

HEU smuggled in a bag of apples

Elektrostal, Russia | 1995

An employee from the Elektrostal Machine-Building Plant stole 1.7 kilograms of 21% enriched uranium (HEU) by hiding it in a bag of apples. The worker escaped detection because the portal monitors weren't functioning.

Explosive device found near nuclear fuel plant

Tokai-mura, Japan | 2000

An unexploded explosive device was found in a bag at a railway station near the the Tokai-mura nuclear fuel plant. Tatsufumi Oshiba was arrested, citing anger about a previous nuclear accident as his motive.

Multiple smuggling attempts in Georgian capital

Tbilisi, Georgia | 2006-20016

Over 10 years, many attempts at smuggling nuclear materials out of Tbilisi were intercepted by Georgian law enforcement. Smugglers illegally possessed varying amounts of uranium-238 and 235 and cesium.

Uranium stolen from Mosul University

Mosul, Iraq | July 8, 2014

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon received a letter announcing that around 88 pounds of uranium compounds were stolen from Mosul University in Iraq by insurgents.

Paris attackers found stalking Belgian nuclear official

Mol, Belgium | November 13, 2015

Suspects linked to the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks possessed surveillance footage of a Belgian nuclear official. It is believed that the Islamic State hoped to abduct the official to obtain nuclear or radioactive materials.

Armed men break into the Pelindaba Nuclear Plant

Pelindaba, South Africa | November 8, 2007

Four armed men broke into the nuclear research center which houses both a research reactor and bomb-grade uranium. Two employees were assaulted, and one shot. The attackers escaped and no nuclear materials were stolen.

A string of nuclear smuggling in Moldova

Chisinau, Moldova | 2010-2015

Moldova saw four major nuclear smuggling cases in five years—uranium in three cases, cesium in one. Authorities were unable to identify the sources of the stolen materials.

Sabotage of a nuclear power plant

Antwerp, Belgium | August 5, 2014

In what appears to be an act of sabotage by one or more as yet unidentified insiders, the turbine of the Doel-4 nuclear power plant was destroyed by draining it's lubricating oil. The ensuing repair cost and losses due to the reactor's four months shutdown exceeded 100 Million Euros.

Ukrainian criminals attempt to smuggle uranium to Romania

Vorokhta, Ukraine | August 5, 2015

Police arrested four members of a criminal organization for attempting to sell Uranium-238. They were caught after one tried to smuggle the materials across the Ukraine-Romania border.

Cyber attack at Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant

Visaginas, Lithuania | February 1992

Oleg Savchuk, a computer programmer, was arrested after trying to sabotage the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant with a computer virus.

Inside job goes virtually unnoticed at Chepetsky Mechanical Plant

Glazov, Russia | 1992 - 1995

Workers at the Chepetsky Mechanical Plant stole small amounts of LEU, eventually accumulating a large stash. After the arrests, around 300 kilograms of LEU was reported missing.

HEU smuggled in a bag of apples

Elektrostal, Russia | 1995

An employee from the Elektrostal Machine-Building Plant stole 1.7 kilograms of 21% enriched uranium (HEU) by hiding it in a bag of apples. The worker escaped detection because the portal monitors weren't functioning.

Explosive device found near nuclear fuel plant

Tokai-mura, Japan | 2000

An unexploded explosive device was found in a bag at a railway station near the the Tokai-mura nuclear fuel plant. Tatsufumi Oshiba was arrested, citing anger about a previous nuclear accident as his motive.

Multiple smuggling attempts in Georgian capital

Tbilisi, Georgia | 2006-20016

Over 10 years, many attempts at smuggling nuclear materials out of Tbilisi were intercepted by Georgian law enforcement. Smugglers illegally possessed varying amounts of uranium-238 and 235 and cesium.

Uranium stolen from Mosul University

Mosul, Iraq | July 8, 2014

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon received a letter announcing that around 88 pounds of uranium compounds were stolen from Mosul University in Iraq by insurgents.

Paris attackers found stalking Belgian nuclear official

Mol, Belgium | November 13, 2015

Suspects linked to the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks possessed surveillance footage of a Belgian nuclear official. It is believed that the Islamic State hoped to abduct the official to obtain nuclear or radioactive materials.

If the international community doesn’t do more to secure nuclear sites and reduce their excess stockpiles of nuclear materials, we can expect to see more of these incidents. And it’s only a matter of time before terrorists are successful.

What’s being done to protect nuclear materials?

After the terror attacks of 9/11 and the emergence of large, global terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, countries have started working together to improve the security of nuclear materials around the globe. A number of initiatives have sprung up to support this effort.

International initiatives

Convention for the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)

Signed in 1980 and amended in 2005, the convention requires countries to protect nuclear facilities and material during use, storage, and transport. It also expands cooperation between countries so that they can quickly locate and recover stolen or smuggled nuclear material and mitigate any radiological consequences of sabotage.

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540

Adopted in 2004, this resolution requires countries to implement measures that prevent non-state actors from obtaining weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), related materials, and delivery systems.

International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT)

Entering into force in July 2007, this treaty criminalizes planning, threatening, or carrying out acts of nuclear terrorism and requires countries to enact laws that criminalize these offenses.

IAEA Nuclear Security Plans and Nuclear Security Fund

Created in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the IAEA established a "comprehensive plan of action to protect against nuclear terrorism" and a corresponding voluntary funding mechanism. The IAEA provides support and assistance to member states, facilitates international cooperation and information sharing, and develops nuclear security guidance documents.

Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR)

Initially funded by the U.S. Congress to help return Soviet nuclear weapons to Russia and to help meet treaty commitments, the program was expanded to include other countries and assists in the destruction of WMD stockpiles.

Global Partnership (GP) Against Weapons of Mass Destruction

An initiative of the seven major industrial countries (G7), the Global Partnership aims to fund nonproliferation projects and assist nations in destroying their WMD stockpiles.

The Megaports Initiative

Sponsored by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, the initiative works with foreign customs, port authorities, port operators, and others to help them detect radioactive materials in shipping containers. Since 2003, it has installed 42 Radiation Portal Monitors in ports across the globe.

Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI)

Since 2004, this initiative by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration has been identifying, securing, and removing vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials at research reactors and other vulnerable civilian sites, such as hospitals and industrial facilities, worldwide.

Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT)

The United States and Russia lead this group of 88 countries and 5 international organizations working together to fight nuclear terrorism.

Nuclear Security Summits

Held every two years from 2010-2016 under the leadership of President Obama, these summits helped minimize the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU), improved security at nuclear power plants, and bolstered membership in international initiatives.

We have to do more

Globally we’ve made progress on nuclear security, but there are still too many gaps. Despite the growing number of international fora and initiatives to improve nuclear security, many governments around the world aren’t convinced of the severity of the nuclear terrorism threat.

As long as weapons-grade materials are available, there is a risk that they’ll be stolen.

Many of the world's civilian nuclear facilities are not well protected against terrorist attacks—in some cases, there aren’t even armed guards. Insider threats and cyber security are not adequately addressed. There are over 70 civilian research reactors in 20 countries that continue to use highly enriched uranium, which can be used in nuclear bombs, instead of converting to low-enriched uranium. About a dozen countries own plutonium that they have separated out from their spent reactor fuel. These plutonium stocks are growing, and there is no international agreement to halt—let alone reverse—this trend.

If countries don’t work together to rise to the challenge, it’s only a matter of time before we face the consequences. But what can be done?

There are now two major, legally binding international agreements that require countries to protect nuclear materials and facilities from sabotage and terrorism. But neither provides specific guidance on actual security standards. IAEA documents and recommendations are more specific, but adherence to those guidelines is voluntary. Sharing of information about terrorist threats, actual security incidents, and countries’ responses is still too limited and needs to be improved.

A more stringent international system of standards should hold countries accountable for not following proper guidelines and security measures—including measures to prevent cyber attacks. It could involve mandatory peer review, publication of information, and participation in security initiatives.

All nations need to commit to reducing stockpiles of bomb-grade uranium (HEU) at civilian facilities and use low-enriched uranium (LEU) in research reactors instead. As long as weapons-grade materials are available, there is a risk that they’ll be stolen.

Two workers attach a crane hook to a large container, readying it to be loaded into a cargo plane.

National Nuclear Security Administration worked with the Vietnamese government and international partners to remove all HEU from Vietnam. The uranium will be taken to Russia to be downblended for use in nuclear power plants.

National Nuclear Security Administration

For security reasons, most countries are reluctant to commit their military materials to the same scrutiny as their civilian stockpiles. But countries need to explore ways to ensure that they’re secure.

Above all, we must keep the threat of nuclear terrorism in the political conversation. As citizens, we need to remind our representatives that these issues are important and keep them in the public sphere.

So far, the world has been lucky that we haven’t seen a catastrophic incident of nuclear terrorism. Now we need to be smart, too.

The Human Cost

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