The administration released a new strategy intended to confront the threat of terrorists obtaining and catastrophically using unsecured nuclear and radioactive materials in weapons of mass destruction.
President Biden signed National Security Memorandum (NSM) 19 to Counter Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Terrorism and Advance Nuclear and Radioactive Material Security on Thursday; this was followed by a rollout at a Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) event in Washington hosted by Assistant to the President for Homeland Security Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall.
“Though countering terrorism has been a top priority for the United States for more than two decades, the terrorist threat has evolved,” Sherwood-Randall said. “It’s become more ideologically diffuse, and geographically diverse, and as a result we’re evolving our counterterrorism enterprise to ensure that it’s well-positioned and nimble enough to meet emerging threats in real time. That means we must maintain our focus and our attention on existential threats that are generally deemed low probability but high consequence — particularly the threat of nuclear terrorism, but also those that may not be existential but may be more likely such as chemical or radiological attacks.”
“We must do everything within our power to prevent the realization of all of these threats while preparing to mitigate and manage the consequences if they were to come to pass,” she added, acknowledging that “public attention paid to these issues has decreased” over the years.
The event also included Energy Department Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration Jill Hruby, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Christopher T. Hanson, DHS Acting Assistant Secretary for the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office Gary Rasicot, and former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, now NTI co-chair and CEO.
Rasicot noted that the NSM highlights DHS’ critical role as a “conduit” from the intelligence community to state, local, territorial, and tribal partners as well as critical infrastructure operators to ensure they are “aware of and prepared for WMD terrorism threats” and can access federal resources to enhance their capabilities, such as the Securing the Cities program.
“In most scenarios, whether it’s detection or response, especially in those involving chemical or biological terrorism, it will be our SLTT first responders that are first on the scene,” he said. “So it is essential that they have the skills and capabilities to remain safe and handle the situation until federal help arrives.”
The new strategy stresses that “reducing, eliminating, and securing radioactive and nuclear materials are the most effective means to prevent their acquisition and use,” according to the White House, and “integrates, in a systematic way, U.S. policies to counter the use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons by non-state actors, sets out unified priorities for departments and agencies across the federal government, and affirms the Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to work with state, local, tribal, international, and private sector partners on preventing, mitigating, and responding to WMD terrorism threats.”
The NSM addresses both the possibility of existing weapons usable materials falling into nefarious hands and the anticipation of emerging threats and “over-the-horizon technologies that could be used to develop, acquire, or employ WMD,” including through peaceful applications such as clean energy.
The strategy is aligned along three prongs, according to an unclassified fact sheet released on the classified NSM: the first, countering WMD terrorism, involves coordination across agencies to ensure that the federal government can prevent, mitigate, and respond to a WMD terrorist attack — “one of the most enduring challenges to our national security” that makes it “necessary to involve the broadest range of partners.”
To counter WMD terrorism in the United States and around the world, the NSM says, it is the policy of the United States to “prevent non-state actors from acquiring WMD and related materials, detect and disrupt WMD terrorism threats, deter and prevent actors from supporting WMD terrorism, degrade and eliminate WMD-related capabilities of non-state actors, enhance resilience and recovery from WMD terrorism events, enhance capabilities to anticipate and manage emerging technology that could enable WMD terrorism threats, build domestic partner capabilities to counter WMD terrorism, and enhance international collaboration to counter WMD terrorism.”
“The SLTT partnerships make an exponential difference in countering WMD terrorism in a domestic arena,” Rasicot said. “The NSM recognizes this reality and I believe sets us off on a course to better protect the nation from WMD terrorism.”
The second line of effort is advancing nuclear materials security, noting concerns about the storage, transportation, processing, and use of highly enriched uranium, separated plutonium, and other materials that may be used in peaceful applications of nuclear technology but can also be used in weapons.
To improve nuclear material security in order to help prevent acts of nuclear terrorism, the NSM says policy is to “minimize the production and retention of weapons-usable nuclear materials to only those quantities required to support vital national security interests, refrain from the use of weapons-usable nuclear material in new civil reactors or for other civil purposes unless that use supports vital U.S. national interests, focus civil nuclear research and development on approaches that avoid producing and accumulating weapons-usable nuclear material and enable viable technologies to replace current civil uses of these materials, dispose of nuclear material that is in excess to national security or civil needs in a safe and secure manner, promote safe nuclear material management policies and best practices internationally and encourage adoption of analogous policies with international partners and organizations, enable multilateral institutions’ nuclear material security activities so they are adequately supported and responsive, and ensure national and international capabilities to identify, mitigate, and respond to nuclear material security threats.”
The final prong of the strategy focuses on advancing radioactive material security, with the White House noting that “millions of sources are in use worldwide every day, with thousands also disused and in storage, many of which lack disposition options (including final disposal, and other management options such as reuse, recycle, or return to supplier) for disused sources, or lack safe and secure long-term storage.”
The NSM says that in order to reduce the threat of radiological terrorism U.S. policy is to “maintain robust security for all high-activity radioactive sources during their lifecycle for all sources that cannot be replaced, encourage the replacement of source-based devices with non-radioisotopic alternative technologies, where technically and economically feasible, and continue support for research and development of alternative technologies, permanently dispose of or recycle disused and unwanted high-activity radioactive sources, maintain consistent standards for the transportation security of radioactive materials, in keeping with regulatory requirements apply mitigation measures in case of physical security failures, support and coordinate efforts to locate and secure lost or stolen radioactive materials and return them to regulatory control, support improvements to state-level and end-user capacities for, commitment to, and implementation of long-term stewardship approaches that ensure these materials will be tracked and secured from theft or diversion, and promote U.S. radioactive materials management policies and best practices internationally and encourage adoption of analogous policies, both with individual partner states and through multilateral organizations.”
The White House said this will be the first comprehensive policy for securing radioactive materials in addition to the new domestic guidelines for managing and securing nuclear material.
“This National Security Memorandum comes at a critical moment: Russia’s horrific actions have upended conventional thinking about nuclear security,” Sherwood-Randall said. “It could not be more important to promote responsible nuclear behavior right now.” Ukraine, meanwhile, has been “a model nonproliferation partner.”