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Nickolas Roth

Out-of-control missile officers and other nuclear threats

Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh, right, and Tech. Sgt. Justin Richie, are shown in a training facility at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.
Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh, right, and Tech. Sgt. Justin Richie, are shown in a training facility at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.Beau Wade/US air force photo via ap

Late last year, General Michael Carey, the commander of the US intercontinental nuclear missile force, was relieved of his duties after a drunken bender in Russia, where he was participating in a joint nuclear security training exercise. On a mission that was intended to convey the seriousness of nuclear security, Carey’s behavior did just the opposite.

This is not the only example of complacency among those responsible for securing nuclear weapons and materials. In 2012, a group of senior citizens, including an 82-year-old nun, was able to infiltrate a nuclear weapons site in Oak Ridge, Tenn., that housed enough highly enriched uranium to make hundreds of nuclear weapons. A few weeks later, guards at the same facility were suspected of cheating on a test to gauge its security system. A subsequent review of the facility revealed numerous security lapses. As if all of this weren’t bad enough, the Air Force has announced that, during a drug investigation, 34 nuclear missile launch officers were caught cheating on missile operation tests.

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These incidents highlight an important issue for countries that possess the world’s most dangerous weapons or the materials needed to build those weapons, highly enriched uranium and plutonium. How does the world sustain efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear theft and sabotage?

In 2009, President Obama announced that the United States would lead an effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the globe within four years. This past December marked the end of that effort, and significant progress has been made. Many states are making nuclear security a higher priority, large quantities of highly enriched uranium and plutonium have been removed, and security upgrades have been made at facilities around the globe. However, more needs to be done.

The United States and Russia have a working group that focuses on fostering organizational environments that prioritize and understand the need for securing nuclear materials. Government agencies and non-governmental organizations have also published “best practices” guides on how to create an environment that prioritizes security. Every year, training sessions are organized around the globe to educate those who work with nuclear materials on the seriousness of security. However, the norms, routines, and attitudes regarding nuclear security — the institutional culture in places where weapons and materials are stored — are very difficult to change, especially when states have limited resources and the likelihood of nuclear theft is low in many places. On a good day, this is an uphill battle.

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News of Carey’s drunken exploits and cheating among missile officers does not make this task easier. As the country pushing hardest to improve nuclear security around the world, the United States should take advantage of the “teachable moment” these past mistakes provide.

In March, the Netherlands will host the third Nuclear Security Summit, which presents the best opportunity for elevating the discussion. At a minimum, there are a number of steps countries could take to ensure that those who work with nuclear materials understand the gravity of their job.

First, these stories should be used as educational opportunities. Governments should cooperate to create an international database of incidents related to nuclear security and the lessons that can be learned from them.

Second, people who work around nuclear weapons and materials should be briefed and thoroughly understand the threat of nuclear terrorism. These briefings must be not only for security-related staff, but for all staff. If workers understand the threat, they are less likely to be casual in their work.

Finally, governments should require organizations that handle nuclear materials to assess and improve their security culture.

The United States, Russia, and many others states will be storing and transporting nuclear weapons and materials for a decades to come. It is essential that the governments, organizations, and individuals responsible for these materials make certain they are secure for as long as they pose a threat.

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Nickolas Roth is a research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center.

Correction: An earlier version misstated the month when the Netherlands will host the Nuclear Security Summit.