U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration counter-smuggling team carries on its mission after adapting to a “new normal”*

A key mission of the National Nuclear Security Administration – part of the U.S. Department of Energy – is detecting, disrupting, and investigating the smuggling of nuclear and radioactive material before the material can be used in an act of terrorism.  

From its initial start in the 1990s, the mission of the Office of Nuclear Smuggling Detection and Deterrence (NSDD) has matured into a multilayered program with a network of over 100 agencies in more than 70 countries, including many members of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction (Global Partnership).


Resiliency is tested

While NSDD’s efforts allowed work to continue during the pandemic, NSDD eagerly sought a balance between effective remote engagements and returning to in-person meetings for key sensitive discussions, building new partnerships, and inspecting systems directly. NSDD has started to ready itself for the gradual resumption of travel and increased in-person interaction with its valued partners. And while activities have yet to reach the same pace as before COVID-19, NSDD execution builds on the momentum from work during the pandemic.

In addition to the pandemic, recent geopolitical upheaval in several regions around the world has created new challenges, providing an initial test of NSDD’s ability to continue cooperation in regions where travel is not an option for its staff. Within Central Asia and Eastern Europe, as in-person activities are canceled and projects are delayed, NSDD is leaning heavily on the lessons learned over the last two years to continue advancing its work.

“Within every challenge there is opportunity. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an unimaginable toll, but that terrible cost has also necessitated a drive to be creative, to rise, and to overcome,” says Kasia Mendelsohn, Principal Assistant Deputy Administrator for the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation.

The work continues

The pandemic disrupted the program’s ability to travel globally. Even as NSDD demobilized and evacuated its in-country staff, office leadership quickly redesigned office training, workshops, and exercises for virtual operations and developed remote oversight plans – establishing procedures to maintain oversight of ongoing overseas projects – all while continuing to meet the program’s national security objectives. The remote oversight plans outlined remaining tasks, risks, and paths forward. Each plan was job-site specific and adapted as necessary to align with the constant changes and restrictions under the pandemic.


On the horizon

While current events have impacted some of NSDD’s partnerships, the program remains committed to building and strengthening a network of states and multilateral organizations prepared to confront the challenge of nuclear smuggling even in uncertain or rapidly changing environments. NSDD is evolving its approach to do much more than equip points of entry with radiation detection equipment. Beyond its initial approach focused on points of entry, NSDD is now evaluating, testing, and deploying new technologies that involve targeted and flexible deployments that are risk-informed and, at times, incorporate specific information on adversaries and threats along green borders and internal to partner countries.

NSDD and its partners have jointly undertaken addressing the challenges of countering nuclear smuggling in border areas that are difficult to monitor or control. Working through its Green Border Security Initiative and its Internal Security and Law Enforcement Initiative, the program has made great strides in strengthening layered nuclear and radiological detection and interdiction defenses.

Finally, in addition to strengthening its current partnerships, NSDD continues to expand its network by seeking new partners. Even during the pandemic, the program engaged new partner countries in the Balkans, Persian Gulf, East and North Africa, and South and Southeast Asia. As the counter-nuclear smuggling mission becomes more vital, NSDD looks forward to building enduring relationships in these critical areas of the world.


NSDD instituted strict adherence to U.S. safety standards and helped quickly normalize masks, distancing, and increased sanitization requirements. More importantly, NSDD’s longstanding relationships with its international partners aided their approval of using video, photographic, and other remote monitoring tools at work sites. During lockdown periods, where almost all movement was restricted, staff continued working on tasks such as permitting, engineering, and design work.


In addition to bilateral relationships, NSDD values its multilateral partners as well. International forums like the Global Partnership remain as important as ever, and NSDD is grateful for the continuing support from a number of Global Partnership member states to advance this global security mission.

At the heart of NSDD’s more than two decades of success, and key to its future, is its partnerships. As the program innovates to respond and adapt to emerging crises and risks, it remains anchored in its enduring core competency: providing unique security solutions while building enduring relationships with both bilateral and multilateral stakeholders. In spite of a period of global crisis, NSDD's demonstrated adaptation and resiliency, and that of its partners, has maintained the power of international cooperation that is so critical to preventing nuclear terrorism.

*An earlier version of this article has been published on the U.S. Department of Energy Website.

COVID-19 disrupted the way NSDD’s mission was executed, but by leveraging technology, creativity, and its strong relationships with international partners, NSDD adjusted the way it conducts business during the pandemic. These innovative solutions quickly addressed challenges in the short term, facilitating continued engagement with partner countries until robust, on-the-ground, engagement could resume. In facing the challenges of the seemingly never-ending pandemic, NSDD seized on opportunities to adapt, creating new approaches to advance its mission that will continue to be leveraged into an uncertain future.

The pandemic begins

NSDD works directly with international partners to prevent the unlawful movement of nuclear and/or radioactive material. Much of its work takes place in remote, dangerous, or uncontrolled areas that have become hubs for nuclear smuggling and/or terrorist activity. NSDD’s ability to work within these challenging regions allows for its successful assistance with detecting and interdicting dangerous material before they can be used in terrorist acts. However, NSDD’s international focus left it particularly vulnerable to disruption during the pandemic. Although nuclear smuggling is not an everyday security concern, the high potential consequence of terrorists acquiring such material, combined with potential security vulnerabilities arising from the pandemic, made NSDD’s mission even more important.


Radiation Portal Monitors in Latvia.

Mobile counter nuclear smuggling detection operations in Poland.

Virtual signing of Terms of Reference between the US National Nuclear Security Administration and Mexico's National Nuclear Safety and Safeguards Commission to advance counter nuclear smuggling cooperation.