How Safe And Secure Are US Nuclear Complexes? – OpEd


The challenges to the safety and security of Nuclear Weapons/Material are not only a matter of concern for newly-born nuclear states, such as Pakistan, but it are equally challenging for technologically developed nuclear states such as the United States of America.

The US struggled throughout the 1970s and 80s to improve its C2 systems to better protect its nuclear assets and it’s still not satisfactorily secured its nuclear complex and security lapses. If one gives an overview to the incidents of security lapses that have taken place in the US only through the last decade, one would realize that no working C2 system in the world is practically perfect.

There have been examples of safety and security lapses, of all kinds of the concerns that the West shows for Pakistan. More specifically, there have been examples of safety and security lapses in the US, which has also been involved in proliferation of nuclear technology and materials directly or indirectly.

The cases of loose nukes have been reported in US, such as the famous B-52 bomber incident. In this case, the bomber flew around the US while carrying six nuclear-armed cruise missiles, which alerted the “bent spear code”, a code for an incident involving live nuclear weapons. These weapons had the destruction capability of 10 bombs greater than that was detonated on Hiroshima. And they were reported to be lost for more than thirty-six hours after the plane took off. Those airmen who were flying along with these weapons had replaced the official plan for handling the weapons with that of their own and this they did informally.1

What this means, is that there is already an example of loose nukes in the world, and which was not in Pakistan, but in the US, and suggests a negligence on the part of US.

There have also been incidents related to theft or misplacing of fissile and other nuclear related material. Meaning there is a threat of nuclear terrorism – because in the US (unlike in Pakistan) the private sector in the US is also involved in the nuclear industry.

In 2005, a senior safety officer of the US government’s Los Alamos nuclear laboratory revealed that 5,000 pounds of plutonium was being stored along with other nuclear wastes under a tent outside the laboratory2, open for theft or sabotage.

Also in 2005, this time in in New Jersey, a package containing HEU (highly enriched uranium) was disposed of improperly.3

Then there was a report regarding the transfer of sensitive information from the same lab in 2006 through email.4

As far as proliferation is concerned, the US  (not only the citizens, but the state itself) has been involved in proliferation, the primary beneficiary being Israel.

When US spy planes photographed the Demona facilities in the late sixties, the US AEC (Atomic Energy Commission) inspection teams were hampered by Israel. It would appear the US government was also not interested in conducting serious inspections in Israel, as the official memo of the government reporting on the discussions between the State Department and the AEC representatives suggested that US had no problem with Israel producing nuclear weapons5.

The US has preferred its political interests with allies to that of obvious security threats and interests in ensuring that its nuclear fuel exports6 meant for civilian purpose do not end up as weapons usable.

This trend continued and even in 2000, the US and Israel had reached an agreement according to which the US was supposed to provide support for enhancing the defense and deterrence capability of Israel. The US and Israel admitted in 2003 that they had deployed Harpoon class cruise missiles, armed with nuclear weapons in the Israeli fleet of Dolphin class submarines.7

A lot has been said, and is being said about the insecurity of Pakistan’s nuclear complex, but if the sixty three years of history with regard to the  US’ nuclear ownership is compared to that of the relatively smaller and so-called nascent Pakistani nuclear complex there have been negligible security lapses or accidents reported (keeping AQ Khan issue aside due to other reasons).

While we are not saying that the US and Pakistan are equal, nor do we want to indulge in counter rhetoric, it is still important to see that errors and loopholes can exist, even in the best systems of the world such as in the  US (best from the Western perspective). All safety and security systems and policies, whether nuclear or conventional, are dynamic and need to evolve, improve and change, according to new situations and threats being posed.

In the light of these facts, one must analyze what can be the reality behind this threat of Pakistan’s nuclear insecurity and whether the West wants to accuse Pakistan just for the sake of accusing it, or it actually is concerned about the issue.8

Lt. Gen. Kidwai, who is one of the most important figures in the nuclear complex of Pakistan, while giving a lecture at the Naval Post Graduate School acknowledged the often heard Western concerns regarding Pakistan’s nuclear command and control systems from both friends and enemies. However, he said, this is due to a large information gap and general lack of official communication about Pakistani nuclear program between Pakistan and other concerned states.9

However, SPD is now trying to bridge the gap by creating awareness at home and abroad.

President Musharaf wrote an opinion article in the Washington Post on December 2, 2007, which said,” my policies have reflected the aspirations of the progressive, moderate forces in Pakistan that have been aimed at containing the growing regional extremism fueled by the regional unrest…Pakistan’s natural resource and nuclear assets are protected and that military morale remains high”.10

It could be argued that Pakistan is doing everything to save and secure its nuclear assets not because the West wants it to do so but because of its own sense of responsibility as a nuclear state.

Since the creation of NCA no single accident has been registered, which certainly proves its viability and efficiency11, despite it being a new entrant in the nuclear field its security mechanism is evolving.

One is not implying that nothing more can be done to further strengthen the security of the Pakistani nuclear complex or there are no threats or problems. What needs to be understood is that the realization is there and Pakistan is using all possible means to secure and safeguard its nuclear assets.

The incident of B-52 Bomber and Los Alamos is also an indication that even the security of US is not foolproof and it needs to improve. Significant security lapses have occurred in many other nuclear programs, thus there is a frequently quoted thumb-rule:
“Security should constantly improve and evolve in a way to be One step a head of the would be thieves.”12

1. Shireen M Mazari, ‘US: The Most Dangerous Nuclear State’: The News: Dec 12th, 2007.
2. Committee on the Oversight of the Department of energy Laboratories, march 19th, 2008 at
3. Shireen M Mazari, ‘US: The Most Dangerous Nuclear State’: The News: Dec 12th, 2007.
4. Keay Davidson, Los Alamos National Laboratory: Energy Department Acknowledges Lab’s E-Mail Security Lapse’ june 16th, 2007. at
5. ‘The Proliferation Trail’, at
6. K Bhushan and G.Katyal, Nuclear Biological and Chemical Warfare”, New Delhi, pp 139
7. Shireen M Mazari, ‘US: The Most Dangerous Nuclear State’: The News: Dec 12th, 2007.
8. Khalid Saleem, ‘Why Sudden Concern About Nukes Security’, Pakistan Observer, December 1st, 2007.
9. Rizwan Zeb, ‘When The Safest is Not Safe Enough’: Defense Journal, 2007.
10. Jehangir Khattak, “Now Quest For Pakistan’s Nukes Safety”, Defense Journal: January 2008.
11. ‘Pakistan’s Nuclear Oversight Reforms’: Extracts From Various Chapters of the IISS strategic Dossier, Interaction, Chapter Five: January, 2008
12. David Albright, ‘Securing Pakistan’s Nuclear Complex’: Oct 2007. Article read in Airlie Conference center, Warrenton. at

Muhammad Jawad Hashmi

Mr. MJ Hashmi is M.Phil in Defence and Strategic Studies. He is an Author of a book entitled as “Nuclear Terrorism in Pakistan: Myth of Reality?” His Area of interest is Nuclear Terrorism, Nuclear Safety and Security issues in Pakistan, Arms Control and Disarmament, Nuclear Non-Proliferation. He can be reached at [email protected]

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