ACA’s journal, Arms Control Today, remains the best in the market. Well focused. Solidly researched. Prudent.

– Hans Blix,
former IAEA Director-General

Remarks: NNSA's Jay Tilden at an ACA-PSA Nuclear Security Forum
Share this

The Nuclear Security Forum
Tools of the Trade:
Interactive Tech Fair on Nuclear Detection & Response

Friday, October 12th, 2018

Opening Remarks (TRANSCRIPT BELOW) By:
Jay Tilden, Associate Administrator and Deputy Undersecretary for Counterterrorism and Counterproliferation, NNSA

Keynote By:
General James Jones, Former National Security Advisor & Supreme Allied Commander Europe

The Partnership for a Secure America, the Arms Control Association, the Hudson Institute, and the National Nuclear Security Administration held an interactive lunch event featuring former National Security Advisor General James Jones, and experts from the National Nuclear Security Administration. This was be the second event of the bipartisan Nuclear Security Forum series.

This workshop explored U.S. government capabilities for preventing, detecting, and responding to nuclear and radiological terrorism threats. Attendees will have the opportunity to engage directly with NNSA’s Office of Counterterrorism and Counterproliferation and participate in live demonstrations of radiation detection equipment used in field operations. Each stage of this interactive tech fair allowed attendees to explore tools of the trade with specialized equipment and NNSA experts.

Radiological materials are an essential tool for medical diagnosis and treatment, power generation, national security, agriculture, and many industries. Legitimate shipments of radioactive materials are routinely conducted and regulated by domestic and international entities, but in rare cases these shipments have been lost or stolen. Had these or similar materials fallen into the wrong hands, they could have been used malevolently in dirty bombs or radiation exposure devices.

The U.S. is fortunate that, to date, attacks using radiological materials have not occurred but the NNSA maintains state of the art instrumentation and highly qualified scientists and engineers to counter and respond to radiological threats, as well as providing relevant subject matter expertise to governmental decision makers during an accident or incident.

NNSA’s Office of Counterproliferation and Counterterrorism stands ready to counter and respond to any malicious use of these materials through innovative science, technology and policy driven solutions. Join us on Friday, October 12th for a first-hand look into how NNSA’s experts counter and respond to threats of nuclear terrorism.

For more information about The Nuclear Security Forum and to read our first of its kind report "Empowering Congress on Nuclear Security: Blueprints for a New Generation."

Partnership for a Secure America, the Arms Control Association, and Hudson Institute would like to thank the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for their support of this nuclear security initiative.


Jay Tilden: Thank you for the kind introduction, Nate, and thanks to the Partnership for a Secure America, the Arms Control Association, and the Hudson Institute for sponsoring this important and timely event. Today, this forum will provide a snapshot into how we, at the National Nuclear Security Administration work to prevent, detect and respond to a broad range of nuclear threats, including nuclear terrorism, as well as some of the equipment we use in this mission. After my opening remarks, we are honored to have as our keynote speaker, retired Marine Corps General Jim Jones. I look forward to hearing General Jones’ wise perspectives, given his over 40 years of service to the country in multiple national security positions, including Commandant of the Marine Corps, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe and Commander, US European Command, as well as the 22nd National Security Advisor.

Later on, you all will be able to see the some of the equipment and talk with our Radiological Assistance Program team members who are here today, and let’s give those folks a big thank you not just for being here, but for being ready to respond at a moments’ notice to protect the public health and safety. My goal is to briefly put the equipment and these teams in context.

First, I will review how the NNSA applies science to understand the range of potential threats, then how that understanding informs the many USG agencies and various programs we use to prevent, detect, or interdict such threats, and finally, a general discussion on how NNSA responds to such a nuclear threat.


Today, we face two primary nuclear threats; the first has existed for decades, and that is a nuclear terrorism threat involving a lost, stolen or diverted nuclear weapon from proliferant states or from a potentially failed nuclear weapon state. Additional scenarios that we are prepared for include a terrorist group obtaining radiological or nuclear material and fashioning this into some type of radiological dispersal or explosive device. The second major line of concern involves an actual nuclear attack, by a proliferant, rogue, or hostile nation with nuclear weapons. This attack may be done in a potentially non-attributable manner, possibly with a smaller, more tactical nuclear device, placed surreptitiously in our homeland or that of a close ally. Until proven, this scenario would likely be viewed initially as a possible nuclear terrorism event.

To understand the potential for nuclear terrorism, we must start with the technical range of possibilities. To bound that, we rely upon our historical knowledge base and the deep subject matter expertise resident at our national laboratories in the areas of nuclear weapons and potential improvised nuclear or explosive devices. We use the “state of the art” tools and techniques developed by our close partner, NNSA’s Office of Defense Programs (Who maintains the nation’s nuclear deterrent), to inform our understanding of what we might be up against if we confront a “loose nuke” or other terrorist improvised nuclear explosive threat. We have a dedicated cadre of federal, national laboratory, plant, and support contractor professionals who are committed to both understanding the potentialities as well as deploying and supporting any USG response.

Much of this same knowledge base helps us to prepare for either an overt or surreptitious nuclear attack by a hostile nation, or threat thereof. All of this is underpinned with the latest intelligence as provided by the Intelligence Community and DOE’s own intelligence office.

Informing USG Programs

Ok, so now that we have framed the problem from a technical, threat-informed perspective. NNSA uses these perspectives to inform a broad swath of nonproliferation and counterterrorism efforts across the U.S. government. Starting with the Prevent “away game,” my colleagues in NNSA’s Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation continue to secure, minimize or remove all manner of nuclear or high-activity radiological material around the globe. NNSA is continuing to retrofit highly enriched uranium research reactors to low enrichment fuel, making that material unattractive for a terrorist group. Furthermore, not only is NNSA continuing to develop, in conjunction with commercial partners, new medical technologies that remove highly radioactive sources from the civil marketplace, they are also providing security upgrades to those facilities that retain such high activity sources.

Removing these materials from the terrorist reach remains the primary objective of our multi-layered approach.

Regarding the “transition domain (i.e. pathways or materials in transit)” NNSA and the Department work closely with key interagency organizations across the federal government, including the Intelligence Community, DoD, Homeland Security and the FBI, to detect, identify and interdict or disrupt such threats, be they nuclear material smuggling, illicit technology transfers, or an actual nuclear terror plot. NNSA continues to install both fixed and mobile nuclear material detection systems in key partner countries while providing training to those customs, border, and law enforcement agencies regarding detection and interdiction of nuclear or radiological materials outside of regulatory control. In support of these efforts, we also provide both commodity identification training and table top exercises to these partner countries to connect the technical, operational and policy elements of their governments in response to a realistic terrorist or illicit transfer scenario. Through these table top exercises and the select provisioning of detection equipment, we sensitize other countries about nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation to help them counter nuclear dangers for themselves and for others in their region, far from our shores.

In the Fall of 2015, NNSA provided Commodity Identification Training and an "Eminent Discovery" WMD counterterrorism interdiction tabletop exercise for the Kenyan Anti-Terrorism Unit and Kenyan Wildlife Service, which controls most of the borders. The exercise familiarized the Kenyan participants on WMD threats and precursor materials to enable a national level coordinated response. According to Kenyan media and U.S. Embassy reporting, in August 2016 five Kenyans were arrested on terrorism-related charges after trafficking chemical precursors, explosive devices, and an object containing Cesium-137. The Kenyan officials involved in this interdiction had attended the commodity identification training and exercise NNSA had provided the previous year and attributed their success to that training.


Now, this brings us a bit closer to the “Home game” in securing the nation. There are a lot of organizations and a great number of people who contribute to the nuclear counterterrorism mission and securing the nation. DHS, through its Customs and Border Protection and Domestic Nuclear Detection functions, serves as the front trenches of the last lines of defense. Careful use of law enforcement and intelligence information, combined with radiation detection equipment at our ports, border crossings, and airports could be the first trigger leading to the disruption of the nuclear plot. I’d like to reiterate here, that one of the best “technologies” is in fact our intelligence and law enforcement colleagues and their networks.

So if a threat were to reach our shores and homeland, the Department of Energy and the NNSA have teams that stand ready to respond to a broad array of nuclear incidents or accidents. Often one of our earliest assets to engage is Triage, a secure, on-line capability that provides remote support to law enforcement, public safety officials, and emergency responders in the event that nuclear or radiological spectra, a.k.a. alarm information, has been obtained.

Triage has on-call scientists and specialist available 24 hours a day to analyze transmitted data, assess radioisotope identification, and confirm within 60 minutes of receipt, if the material is indicative of a threat or concern to the public health and safety. If any domestic radiation portal monitors detect a radiation source and on-site personnel cannot clear the alarm (determine it is an authorized shipment), the Department of Homeland Security also relies upon our Triage to provide definitive analysis of their detection data.

NNSA’s response assets include both national-level and regionally distributed technical capabilities for Crisis Response and Consequence Management phases of an event. One of NNSA’s most deployed elements, the Radiological Assistance Program, or RAP, is a unique national, yet regionally distributed asset composed of highly trained and skilled scientific and health physics personnel who have unparalleled radiological expertise among national, state and local emergency response organizations. RAP, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary, is based out of eight DOE and NNSA locations across the country as well as here in DC. RAP can be fully mobilized within two hours in an emergency, responding to state and local matters like lost sources or potential exposures to radiation, as well as supporting law enforcement or intelligence-based search operations for material out of regulatory control.

RAP teams are also part of the interagency effort, often led by DHS, to secure major public event venues, like the Superbowl, presidential inaugurations, the Boston Marathon, and other designated events.

For example, in 2016, a vessel that had previously made stops in Pakistan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia was approached and boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard 10 nautical miles offshore from Astoria, Oregon. Basic radiation pager detectors alarmed after a Coast Guard sweep of the ship, indicating both gamma and neutron activity. Additionally, two people on the ship’s manifest were unaccounted for – possibly a clerical error or they had jumped ship at a prior stop, raising further suspicions.

The Coast Guard called in support from the DOE, FBI, and Oregon 102nd WMD Civil Support Team. Our RAP Region 8 team deployed immediately, with specialized equipment to support the FBI. The four-person team spent several hours aboard the ship and were able to prove that the radiation emanated from natural sources within the cargo. The ship was then permitted to travel to its next port of call, the Port of Vancouver, Washington.

This exemplifies the focus and commitment of the members of our RAP teams. Most often, they are unlikely to know the situation they will be encountering but with state of the art equipment and training, they are among our nation’s first and best resources to confirm a potential radiological or nuclear event.

Another element within the agency that can be deployed preemptively, like RAP, during an emerging incident or in support of consequence management is the Aerial Measuring System, or AMS. Using fixed and rotary-winged airframes with state of the art sodium iodide detectors, AMS can measure naturally occurring radiation as well as radioactive sources or the disposition of radioactive matter on the ground as a result of an incident. Once mapped real time via GIS technologies, these measurements can be used to secure major public events (identifying radiological or nuclear anomalies that could indicate a threat) or in a real emergency, to guide state and local agencies regarding immediate protective actions. The Aerial Measuring System’s flight pattern will be informed by the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Capability, which is the nation’s premier modeling capability for dispersal and deposition of radiological material. We use NARAC, and its real time weather feed, to not only model potential impacts as a situation is emerging, but also to quickly inform decision makers and public health and safety officials during an event.

Both the Aerial Measuring System and NARAC were employed along with expert personnel to Fukushima after that reactor accident in March 2011, providing critical advice to US and Japanese emergency managers. We recently recapitalized the NARAC high performance computer to improve speed and accuracy of throughputs. We continue to replace and upgrade a wide range of our RAP and other deployable equipment and in FY19, we will begin replacement of the Aerial Measuring System’s airframes, all thanks to congressional support of our budget requests.

If a US nuclear weapon were involved in an accident, the Accident Response Group would be deployed with the military to stabilize and safely remove the damaged weapon and return it to NNSA custody. If the incident was an emerging threat involving a foreign nuclear weapon or improvised explosive device with radiological or nuclear signatures, NNSA has several response assets that would be tailored to the problem and deployed, domestically or internationally, in support of the FBI stateside and DoD or Dept. of State internationally. NNSA is also instrumental in the provisioning and sustainment of the FBI Stabilization Teams. Known as “Stab,” these regional teams marry the conventional IED professionals in major metropolitan areas with enhanced tools and training provided by NNSA, forming a distributed capability to speed our understanding and actions on any high-consequence explosive device while the national team is enroute. Once the device is rendered unworkable and safe—NNSA determines when and how the device can be safely moved out of the incident site. Finally, we are part of an integrated team including the FBI and IC professionals that would perform detailed traditional and nuclear forensics to attribute the device to the responsible party.

None of these actions would be possible without technical reach-back or ”Home Team” support—the dedicated and knowledgeable scientists, engineers and specialist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, the Remote Sensing Laboratory and the Pantex plant. When combined with our federal team leaders and senior energy officials, these home teams provide decisive real-time diagnostic and assessment support via highly secure mobile communications to the deployed teams.

Protecting the Public Health and Safety During and After and Event

While we hope never to have to use them, our consequence management efforts seek to save as many lives as possible. As a nation, we need to continue to educate and prepare our citizens for all hazards, from natural ones (fires, floods, earthquakes) to manmade ones (radiological or nuclear accidents or attacks). I would like to remind you that the ability to generate panic or fear equates to a coercive power in our adversary’s eyes, both hostile nation states and terrorists. A major dividend of investing in preparedness will be communities that are less prone to panic, which in turn saves lives, increases our resilience, and reduces our adversaries’ power of coercion.

Through longstanding relationships with federal, state and local emergency preparedness and response agencies, NNSA has made great improvements in our capability for modeling, understanding the public health and safety consequences of a radiological or nuclear incident, as well as improving interagency messaging to the public before and during an event. NNSA sustains a small cadre of medical and health physics professionals, known as the Radiation Emergency Assistance Center and Training Site at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to both train and advise state and local medical institutions on how to save lives during a radiological emergency.

Hopefully this broad overview of our people, assets and their application of technologies to detect nuclear materials and nuclear or radiological threats will give you a sampling of the great work we are doing in these areas. I am honored and quite proud to work with such smart, dedicated people, on these issues.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing your questions and comments during the remainder of this event.

Posted: October 12, 2018