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How Right-Wing Extremists Pose A Nuclear Threat

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This Belgium Nuclear Reactor was sabotaged in 2014. A former employee died earlier in the year while fighting with Islamist militants in Syria. Matthew Bunn points out this is another example of extremists and their connection with nuclear plants.

According to the Harvard Kennedy School's Matthew Bunn, "For whatever reason, for a certain brand of right-wing extremists in the United States and elsewhere, there's a real obsession with nuclear." He says we need to be especially concerned when they work or know somebody who works at a nuclear plant.

These insiders are especially dangerous, he says, because of all the nuclear threats we know about, almost all of them were perpetrated by insiders or with the help of insiders.

Bunn and Scott Sagan recently co-edited a book called Insider Threats. Some of the material covered involves nuclear threats

" 'The Turner Diaries,' which is one of the sort of foundational documents for extreme racists, right-wing movements in the United States, envisons them using nuclear weapons against U.S. cities to sort of bring down the government in order to rebuild a whites-only nation," says Bunn.

One extremist who worked at a nuclear plant was Ashli Babbitt. She was among the crowd storming the Capitol Jan. 6. Police shot and killed her after she tried to get through a barrier. From 2015 to 2017, Babbitt was employed by Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Maryland and as far as anybody knows, didn't do anything wrong there.

But nuclear plants remain an interest to plenty of extremists. In 2015, a suspect linked to the Paris attacks was found with surveillance footage of a top official at a nuclear facility in Belgium. Authorities were worried the Islamic State may have been plotting to kidnap the official to obtain radioactive material for the terrorist attack, according to The New York Times.

And it doesn't stop there. "The Japanese terror group called Alum Shinnikyo that launched nine gas attacks in the Tokyo subways in 1995 and Al Quaeda both pursued nuclear weapons fairly actively," Bunn says. "Recently the Under Secretary General of the United Nations for Counterterrorism reported that the Islamic State has used bitcoin to buy and sell radioactive materials."

The UN also says North Korea funded its nuclear program with cryptocurrency hacks in 2020 worth $316 million.

Where Are The Fastest Growing Arsenals?

Bunn says India and Pakistan are especially concerning because of the terrorists who live and operate there. Also, we don't know what's happening in Russia ever since the invasion of Crimea and cooperation on nuclear security ground to a halt.

"We really have only very modest information available on what's going on in Russia which is the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons, the world's largest stockpile of plutonium and highly enriched uranium in the world's largest number of buildings and bunkers," he says.

The Good News

The U.S. has been helping countries get rid of nuclear material entirely if they don't need it anymore, thanks to a program Bunn suggested. He says more than half of all countries in the world that used to have material to make a nuclear weapon have gotten rid of it.

Bunn says there's still much to be done. He encourages the U.S. to keep its attention on nuclear weapons, pointing to the saying, "If you're not getting better, you're probably getting worse."