You Have to Be There: On Site Visits in International Nuclear Security Engagement

By Daniel Salisbury

April 17, 2023

IMAGE: Tour of Olkiluoto nuclear power plant, Finland. Photo by TVO / Tapani Karjanlahti via IAEA on Flickr, used under CC BY 2.0.

The long, stuffy bus trip contrasted in some ways with the previous days in a windowless, air-conditioned conference room. We were taking the “scenic route.” Patchy cell-phone service meant we had time to take in the view. After a couple of hours of driving past farmland, abandoned buildings, and the occasional industrial estate, the bus pulled up at a set of gates topped with razor wire.

Behind the gates, we were ushered off the bus and into the visitor center building in the shadow of one of the world’s most interesting reactor projects. After a quick look at some information panels—with most of the text in a language I could not read—we were ushered back onto the bus, back through the gates, and toward the capital.

Essentially, a day wasted. More lessons for nuclear security could have been extracted from a visit to a local bank or casino.

Site visits to nuclear facilities can be a hugely valuable part of nuclear security training and outreach, especially for international exchanges, which allow participants to observe and discuss the human factor and security culture at nuclear facilities. But they are challenging to arrange and need to be well thought through to have the greatest impact.

In my modest career over the past decade, I have organized, run, or spoke at some 40 workshops in 15 jurisdictions. I visited approximately 20 sites in 10 countries. This has run the gamut from huge nuclear power plants and fuel-cycle facilities to small research reactors and radiological source facilities in health-care settings. It also includes nuclear weapons laboratories and military sites, as well as those related specifically to security: armed response training facilities, health and safety labs with explosive testing ranges, and nuclear security centers of excellence.

Those varied experiences give insight into how site visits can best be facilitated, managed, and used in disseminating best practices for nuclear security around the world.

The last thing you want to do is give participants a tour that local school children might receive.

The most valuable tours showcase security aspects of the site, to the degree possible given security concerns. But a site visit like that requires intensive planning and receptive hosts. These are key ingredients if an experience like that fruitless long bus trip described above is to be avoided.

One of my roles working on nuclear security projects was running a regular physical-protection workshop with international participants. We organized a site visit to a large nuclear power plant as part of each iteration of the workshop. Over repeat visits, we built a good relationship with our hosts, who were incredibly receptive.

Our hosts worked with us to tailor the experience for participants. This required us to organize planning visits to the site before the event and again later when the program was revised. These trips usually required us to make a day-long trek to the remote site involving multiple trains and a long taxi ride along a windswept, barren landscape on a coast.

While the trip was long and the wind chilling, we always received a warm reception. We were also provided with managed access to many areas of the site, enabling us to make an informed decision about the best possible tour for our workshop participants.

That kind of host support and planning made all the difference.

We were able to build management buy-in at the operator level—and, indeed, government support for our work. That created a situation where those responsible for security at the facility were willing to provide managed access for the benefit of international nuclear security. Hundreds of participants from countries around the world benefitted from this arrangement over almost a decade.

We learned from planning those site visits that tailored experiences are most beneficial for participants. Taking a cancer nurse or hospital security manager from sub-Saharan Africa, or a university administrator with responsibility for a small research reactor, to a nuclear power plant has limited benefits. More directly relevant experiences also allow participants to develop more–relevant, longer-lasting professional relationships to continue the sharing of best practices.

Fortunately, we’ve been able to allow visitors to access and learn from facilities or activities that are closest to their own. These opportunities have also often come from a specific request pushed by government; government-to-government contacts, particularly where the government requesting is a nuclear security donor state, can clearly open doors.

Otherwise, personal connections—particularly those built through the IAEA International Nuclear Security Education Network (INSEN) and International Network for Nuclear Security Training and Support Centres (NSSC Network)—can be hugely useful in providing such opportunities.

Security shortfalls offer their own lessons during site visits. Some sites have missing hardware, weak culture, or complacency. If the visits are organized blind or without checking out the site ahead of time, then those shortfalls can surprise even the organizers.

On one site visit, I was shown into the reactor hall. They had started a project to install metal bars over the tall rectangular windows—a classic example of security being retrofitted to a reactor built long before. Funds ran out halfway through the project. Unfortunately, the installation had started at the top of the windows. The bottom was unprotected.

At another site, a new turnstile had been installed, likely thanks to international funders, at an access control point. Yet the visiting group were ushered through the open gate at the side. We saw no evidence the turnstile had ever been used.

While I was touring another facility, a regulator participating in the workshop dramatically picked up the reactor control room phone and said, “Good thing this is working, or you’d be in trouble!” She was joking—but the display of inappropriate security culture wasn’t a laughing matter.

Site visits can also betray serious issues down to the very foundations of security culture.

On arrival to one site, a former government official participating in the exchange—the type of official who had been so senior as to chair national-level committees on counterterrorism—was dismayed by what we were shown. The fencing, gates, and other physical security measures were far below the threshold of what would be required in his home country. When this was diplomatically raised, the local hosts responded: “We don’t need that kind of security here. There’s an army base with tanks just down the road.”

While these kinds of incidents can be a good opportunity to learn about security in practice, there comes the challenge of diplomatically relaying to participants that what they have seen is not sufficient. Political sensitivities can make it difficult to discuss those situations.

Getting participants through security at a site is its own challenge.

There were always stressful moments when a group of eager participants waited in the off-site visitor center to collect their security passes and hard hats and other personal protective equipment. Lists of names, passport details, and other personal information had to be submitted weeks in advance. There was always a risk of a last minute denial because a name had been omitted from the list, or someone had forgotten their passport at the hotel.

Unfortunately, the countries that are most in need of security training and would benefit the most from these experiences likely raise the most eyebrows when site access is requested.

While there are legitimate security concerns—not just regarding access to nuclear sites but also in terms of showing some of the more sensitive security systems—managed access is clearly possible. Participants sometimes asked questions that security managers and guards could not answer.

I even managed to get a participant who shared a first name with a major international terrorist organization onto a site visit—a strange achievement. The keys were patience and giving ample time to approve the application. Of course, there will be some instances where access is denied, with some risk of alienation (ironically, I recall a group of Americans being barred access to a major UK defence site producing systems heavily based on US technologies), but given the potential benefits, these are worth managing.

And there are certain circumstances where not all participants are willing or able to engage. More than once I was quietly told by a participant that I was the third person in the world to know they were expecting a baby and that they’d rather sit out the visit (not so much because of concerns over radiation but more stress related to that concern).

Theory and practice often diverge in instructive ways. That is certainly the case with nuclear security.

Although hugely valuable, the IAEA’s Nuclear Security Series can be a fairly turgid set of documents—not recommended for bedtime reading (unless you’re trying to beat insomnia). They simply cannot account for many of the operational-level challenges in implementing IAEA recommendations.

One colorful example here relates to local wildlife. In the United Kingdom, I have heard of the challenges caused by rabbits and maybe deer disrupting security systems and sensors at facilities. Overseas I heard of similar tales of disruption to safety and security systems involving zebras, monkeys, protected bird species and those studying them, and even basking sharks.

An understanding of nuclear security best practices would be incomplete without experiencing security and culture first hand.

Site visits facilitate that. They allow participants to identify similarities and differences between their own situations. They also provide new ideas—seeding potential novel solutions to challenges that have been developed on other sites.

This is most useful for those participants who hail from countries that are still developing their nuclear programs. Maybe they have a research reactor and are planning new-build power reactors. In these cases, site visits and other engagement can help them visualize how appropriate security measures can best be scaled up. More broadly, it allows them to build connections and—for sites with excellent practices—provide some insights into what they can aspire to.

On a less serious note, visits can provide memorable interactive learning and bonding experiences. I witnessed these especially with regard to security culture, one of the more notoriously abstract nuclear security concepts.

On one site visit, I watched a participant get turned away from entering a higher security area after leaving an ID in the site visitor center. The participant pleaded with our security escorts and the guards on the gate. “There are no VIPs in security,” yelled a fellow participant to much amusement.

In another case, I witnessed—ironically—one of our security escorts try to tailgate through an electronic gate and get jabbed in the side by the sliding glass doors. The other attendees rebuked him for a security culture lapse entering his own office block.

Perhaps the most memorable was watching visitors sweat after possibly a few too many drinks the night before, when the hosts revealed excitedly that they had just received breathalyzers that were funded by the Cooperative Threat Reduction program. They passed the test, but there was clearly a tense moment or two.

These  incidents—and many like them—provided memorable learning and bonding experiences.

All in all, despite the challenges, site visits are a hugely valuable component of nuclear security training and education efforts. As well as illustrating concepts in practice and facilitating international exchange, these parts of international engagements are more likely to live with participants for months and years afterward, rather than the four walls of a hotel conference suite.

Country and facility names (as well as other, more-specific identifiers) have been left out of this piece for security and political reasons.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Stanley Center for Peace and Security or any other agency, institution, or partner.



Daniel Salisbury
Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Science and Security Studies, King's College London

Dr Daniel Salisbury is a  Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS) within the Department of War Studies. He is currently undertaking a three-year research project on arms embargos as part of a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship. Daniel is also a Non-Resident Associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He previously held positions at the Stimson Center, the Belfer Center, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, CSSS and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.


Daniel is the author of Secrecy, Public Relations and the British Nuclear Debate: How the UK Government Learned to Talk about the Bomb, 1970-1983 (Routledge Cold War History series, 2020). He is also the author or co-author of over 20 journal articles and book chapters, and the co-editor of two books on Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) and UN Security Council resolution 1540.


Daniel has acted as a Subject Matter Expert at over 30 nuclear security and export control capacity building workshops in over 10 countries around the world since 2012. He holds a PhD in War Studies, MA in Science and Security and BA in War Studies from King’s College London. He sits on the editorial board of the Strategic Trade Review and became an Associate of King’s College London (AKC) in 2010.

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