Popular Science

ALARM WILL SOUND

Steve Hill paces—patrols, really—in front of four projector screens in a classroom at Sandia National Laboratories, outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has close-cropped hair, a straight back, and a swaggering demeanor that together suggest he’s either former military or law enforcement. If you were unsure, your doubts dissolve when you hear him call dice “a tool to determine chance-based outcome.”

The phrasing could be right out of a police report. So yeah, he used to be a cop. And now he’s a “high-risk security professional” at Sandia. On this May afternoon, Hill is standing in front of a room crowded with regulators, power-plant employees, research reactor runners, and other types who work with nuclear materials. They’ve come from all over the world to take the lab’s security training course. Through lectures, tech demos, case studies, and hands-on exercises, they learn how best to keep their radioactive stores out of the wrong hands by constructing the strongest possible protections around them. Though used for good purposes at their facilities, uranium and plutonium are uranium and plutonium—if they get out of peaceful hands and into other ones, they can do very real damage.

Hill is giving his trainees instructions for a tabletop exercise in which they will form opposing teams and game out an attack on a fictional nuclear complex, the Lagassi Institute of Medicine and Physics, where a stash of plutonium pulses at the core. The good guys will try to protect it from the bad guys, who will devise a plan to infiltrate. By playing out scenarios on paper, participants can find weak knees in their own site’s design, and dream up ways to brace them.

During my

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