Theo Kalionzes: Preventing a Nuclear Fort Hood


The Fort Hood shooting on April 2nd laid bare the havoc that a troubled insider with a weapon can cause. This recent event was tragically similar to an attack in 2009. In both cases, Army insiders took advantage of their affiliation to bring unauthorized firearms on to base to commit terrible crimes. Such incidents raise our awareness of the potential for criminal misconduct in other seemingly secure environments. And nowhere do insiders pose a more devastating threat than at nuclear installations.

 What would happen if a malevolent insider were to steal enough fissile material for an improvised nuclear weapon? There is undoubtedly an abundant supply of weapons-usable nuclear materials in the world today. The Fissile Materials Working Group, a nongovernmental coalition dedicated to nuclear security, says enough fissile material is currently held in civilian and military stockpiles to build an additional 100,000 weapons.

An attempt to steal this material would not be unprecedented. In fact, every known incident of nuclear material theft has been carried out or facilitated by insiders, according to a new report by nuclear experts Matthew Bunn and Scott D. Sagan. For example, in 1998, there was a failed “insider conspiracy” to acquire 18.5 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from a large nuclear facility in the Russian Federation. In 2007, an armed group infiltrated a key South African nuclear facility storing hundreds of kilograms. While no material was stolen, the intruders managed to disable multiple barriers at the site, indicating they had prior knowledge of the security system.

Insiders possess unique advantages. Familiarity and trust among co-workers, along with detailed understanding of site practices, can be a recipe for wrongdoing that is hard to counteract. What’s more, physical security systems that depend on human vigilance are intrinsically limited. These dangers are real, but so are the efforts to recognize and combat them.

The good news is that there has been some progress on the multinational stage. At the recent Nuclear Security Summit—a gathering of world leaders aimed at preventing nuclear terrorism—35 of 54 countries pledged to strengthen their national commitments to nuclear security, including the promotion of a “nuclear security culture” for management and personnel.  This is a step in the right direction, but the lack of universality is troubling. The Russian Federation, holder of the single largest stockpile of fissile material in the world, is notably absent from the list of subscribers.

Despite the current crisis in U.S.-Russia relations, reports indicate that implementation language has been finalized for the follow-on agreement to the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program—the post- Cold War landmark accord resulting in the elimination of thousands of Russian nuclear weapons.  President Obama has been a driving force behind reestablishing nuclear security as a priority issue on the world stage, even though a recently released budget reduces key nuclear security funding by $220 million.

So how likely is a “nuclear Fort Hood” today? Much thought and effort have gone into strengthening nuclear security culture and mitigating the insider threat, and there’s every opportunity for global leaders to translate their words into action. For example, the International Atomic Energy Agency guidance documents and World Institute for Nuclear Security best practice guides offer detailed implementation advice for countries and nuclear industry personnel. These documents are a strong start, but they aren’t enough. Given the carnage that could result from an insider-driven nuclear attack, more must be done to ensure such an event can never come to pass.