Nuclear Terrorism: Threats, Challenges, and Responses

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Nuclear Terrorism: Threats, Challenges, and Responses

The Conflict

In the days after September 11, doomsday scenarios like a terrorist nuclear attack suddenly seemed plausible. Even the use of a crude nuclear device would have a devastating effect, both physically and psychologically. In response to these threats, governments and agencies have sought to upgrade worldwide protection against acts of terrorism involving nuclear and other radioactive materials.


• A new breed of terrorists appears more inclined to commit acts of extreme violence. This new set of terrorists may include everything from ad hoc groups motivated by religious conviction or revenge, violent right-wing extremists, and apocalyptic cults.


  • With the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials worldwide, the possibility of terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons has increased.
  • Potential nuclear weapon producers can find useful sites within the information swamp on the Internet.


  • Cooperation between the United States and Russia has led to security upgrades of the weapons-useable material sites in Russia.
  • International cooperation is necessary to ensure the strengthening of nuclear security.

Only weeks after the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, near Washington, DC, a secret intelligence alert went out to a small number of U.S. government agencies. According to the alert, terrorists were thought to have obtained a nuclear weapon from the Russian arsenal and planned to smuggle it into New York City. Allegedly, the yield of the weapon would have been equivalent to ten kilotons of TNT, a thousand times higher than the biggest conventional bomb ever exploded. In response to the threat, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) alerted a number of other federal agencies, including the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST), a special unit under the control of the Energy Department's Nevada Operations Office. In the days after September 11, doomsday scenarios like a terrorist nuclear attack suddenly seemed plausible. Detonated in lower Manhattan, the effects of even a crude nuclear device would have been devastating. But in the end, the investigators found nothing and concluded that the information was false.

The possible need to track down lost, stolen, smuggled, or "improvised" nuclear devices has concerned national security agencies for as long as such weapons have existed. This time, the secret intelligence alert was a false alarm. But will this nightmare soon become reality? Since the beginning of the 1990s media have frequently reported that several portable nuclear devices were missing from the Russian stockpile and that weapons-usable nuclear material has been lost at both civilian and military facilities. Moreover, rumors have risen that the terrorist organization of Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, has been developing a serious weapons program with a heavy emphasis on building a nuclear device.

Bin Laden has been accused of masterminding the devastating terrorist attacks September 11, 2001. The spectacular and highly publicized attacks killed more than 3,000 people from a number of countries. The attacks were all carried out with traditional terrorist means—hijacked airliners—but in the past, bin Laden has declared that acquiring weapons of mass destruction was "a religious duty." During the U.S.-led military retaliations against Afghanistan, bin Laden warned that he possesses both chemical and nuclear weapons, claiming that if the United States used such weapons, he would "reserve the right to use them" himself. Moreover, diagrams of U.S. nuclear power plants were found among al-Qaeda materials in Afghanistan. The target for the fourth plane in the September terrorist attacks, the plane that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania, could have been the White House, the Capitol, or Camp David—but it also could have been the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. Alarmed by growing hints of al-Qaeda's progress toward obtaining a nuclear or radiological weapon, hundreds of new and sophisticated sensors have been deployed to U.S. borders, overseas facilities, and points around Washington, DC.

No publicly known terrorist incidents have ever involved actual nuclear weapons. The "history" of nuclear terrorism involves only threats of uses of nuclear arms and attacks on nuclear power plants and infrastructure. While these actions carry with them a strong potential for societal disruption, none of the attacks have resulted in releases to the environment or radioactive exposures to the public. The number of hoax incidents and threats remains classified, but approximately three to four incidents occurred annually in Germany during the 1990s. The number is likely to be higher in the United States. Nor have any large-scale acts of radiological terrorism occurred, though there have been several threats and some credible scenarios involving radioactive substances. In 1995 Chechen rebels told Russian news media that they had buried a container with the radioactive substance cesium on Russian territory. One container was identified, again without any releases to the environment. The rebels claimed to possess a total of four canisters of cesium, two of which were equipped with explosives and hidden in Moscow.

Nuclear and Radiological Terrorism

Despite some common features, nuclear and radiological terrorism are in fact quite distinct and different types of terrorism. Nuclear terrorism involves the use of nuclear weapons, where large amounts of energy are released when highly enriched uranium or plutonium atoms split during the process of fission. The consequences and destruction wrought from even a crude nuclear weapon may be incredibly devastating due to the heat, pressure and radiation generated.

Radiological dispersion devices expose people to radiation, for instance through a "dirty bomb," in which radioactive laboratory waste or civilian nuclear fuel rods would be wrapped around a conventional explosive and detonated, spreading poison and contamination. While acute deaths may occur, the primary impact on health and life would be through long-term effects like cancer development. A radiological device detonated by terrorists would require the evacuation and decontamination of the immediate area, disrupting the local economy. Given the relative simplicity of constructing a dirty bomb and the vast availability of radioactive materials, scenarios involving radioactive substances have been assumed to be more probable than acts of nuclear terrorism. The psychological impact of either type of device may be severe. Hospitals would be overrun by injured and worried people from the surrounding area.

With weapons of mass destruction, the terror may have moved from a mostly psychological level to a real threat of massive deaths and damages. Suddenly, single actors may possess striking power superseding that of many states. The search for weapons of mass destruction in Afghanistan highlights the potential dangers of terrorists getting access to weapons of mass destruction, and in particular nuclear weapon capabilities. In November 2001 apparent al-Qaeda documents describing production of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were found in a Kabul house. The U.S. government initiated investigations into the information found in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan to establish how close the group was to gaining nuclear and biological weapons capabilities. Said U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, "I don't have any doubt that al-Qaeda was pursuing nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare capabilities. It's not our judgment at the moment that they were that far along, but I have no doubt that they were seeking to do so."

Bin Laden's Quest for Nukes in the 1990s

According to R. James Woolsey, former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Osama bin Laden has been trying to get his hands on enriched uranium for seven or eight years. The trail for the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar al Salaam, Tanzania, in August 1998 shed new light on bin Laden's and al-Qaeda's nuclear weapon intentions. Dating back to 1993, the group tried on several occasions to acquire nuclear material. In 1998 a key aide of bin Laden's was arrested in Germany and charged with trying to obtain nuclear material. Moreover, an exbin Laden associate who testified for the U.S. government in the trial of the 1998 embassy bombings admitted that he had been trying to obtain highly enriched uranium for bin Laden.

Independent reviews of the documents found in Afghanistan and made available publicly did not reveal if al-Qaeda really tried to build a nuclear weapon. After reviewing several hundred pages of terrorist documents some experts believe al-Qaeda was working on a serious nuclear program. But one document labeled "super bomb" appears to be a plan for a nuclear device experts say is unworkable.

The experts added, however, that the authors behind the document clearly are knowledgeable of various ways to set off a nuclear bomb. Moreover, others warn that a dirty bomb may be within the reach of the terrorist organization. Such a device would not create a nuclear explosion, but would instead expose people to radiation and render entire city blocks uninhabitable.

In his State of the Union Address at the end of January 2002, U.S. president George W. Bush (2001-) warned of terrorists joining forces with states possessing biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. According to the U.S. president, such an alliance would be a logical one for terrorists who have found that they are unable to purchase those weapons or their components on the black market. But after searching more than a hundred buildings, military compounds, and camps, no significant amount of radioactive material was found in the containers seized in Afghanistan. U.S. officials indicated that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda may have been duped by black-market weapons swindlers selling crude containers hand-painted with skulls and crossbones and dipped, perhaps, in medical waste to fool a Geiger counter. At the same time, the officials cautioned that it is impossible to make a blanket assertion that al-Qaeda possesses no nuclear material. Despite the analysis and al-Qaeda's rout from Afghanistan, the group still has the desire, resources, and global network of operatives to seek and, perhaps some day, acquire nuclear materials, or biological or chemical ones, that could be used in a terror attack, officials said.

While consensus about an increased threat thus seems to have evolved, experts still argue about the likelihood of large-scale nuclear terrorist violence. Is nuclear terrorism, as some scholars suggest, "an overrated nightmare," since the uses of nuclear weapons remain outside both the intentions and capabilities of contemporary terrorists? Or will terrorists turn to and successfully deploy crude nuclear weapons in the future?

Historical Background

Trends and Patterns in International Terrorism

According to an official U.S. survey, there were 423 international terrorist attacks in 2000, an increase of eight percent from the 392 attacks recorded during 1999. All recorded attacks were performed with traditional terrorist means—conventional weapons and explosives. Western Europe saw the largest decrease, from 85 to 30, owing to fewer attacks in Germany, Greece, and Italy as well as to the absence of any attacks in Turkey. While the number of terrorist attacks have declined or remained fairly constant, the terrorist mortality rate is on the rise with more indiscriminate killings. The death polls from the September 2001 attacks represented nothing less than a quantum leap in terms of terrorist casualties, in itself suggesting that there could be future weapons of mass destruction terrorism.

As clearly evidenced in Manhattan in September 2001, terrorist incidents are often high-profile events. The news media tend to focus on spectacular and negative events, and terrorism may be regarded as a way of communicating. To get attention, terrorists traditionally employ showy attacks that produce a great deal of noise. The news media, for their part, tend to focus on spectacular and negative events. The immense destructive power and the definitive "shock value" of nuclear weapons would immediately create a manifest confirmation of an attack, and, of course, wide-spread and direct attention. Moreover, the detonation of a nuclear device could set a terrorist organization apart from any other group, and could compel governments to take it seriously. The psychological impact of nuclear detonations is likely to be strong, with a radius of psychological damage far exceeding that of injury and death. The public has a greater fear of events and consequences that are catastrophic and not well understood. Past nuclear explosions and nuclear accidents, limited public understanding and knowledge of radiation, and the human inability to sense potential radiation exposure may have cultivated disproportionate fears of radiation. Terrorists who capitalize on these factors are likely to have a strong impact.

There have always been enormous gaps, however, between the potential of a weapon and the abilities and/or the will to employ it by terrorists. New means and methods of violence with unknown outcomes and new technical requirements (and thus an increased risk of failure) could be less appealing for sub-national groups. Unsuccessful or failed actions may waste resources, kill members of the terrorist groups, increase the risk of revelation and retaliation, embarrass the terrorist organization, and reduce support amongst followers—all putting the very existence of the group at stake. Terrorists operate in contexts of enormous uncertainty and anxiety, and may thus prefer known means. If a target is regarded as too challenging, other targets may be chosen, while the tactics of the group remain the same. Alternatively, well-known tactics may be further developed, as painfully evidenced on September 11, 2001. The use of weapons of mass destruction could, moreover, stigmatize the terrorist group and render any political aspirations harder to accomplish. Conventional off-the-shelf weaponry and well-known approaches are thus likely to remain the major tools for most traditional terrorists.

Due to the range of terrorist motivations, incentives, and constraints, fulfillment of the feared nuclear super-terrorism would be highly counterproductive for nearly all terrorist groups. The constraints against the use of weapons of mass destruction are particularly severe for terrorists who are concerned with their constituents (such as social revolutionary and national separatist terrorists). While the majority of terrorist groups are likely to stick to traditional terrorist means, however, some groups may be ready to take the step up to a new level of weaponry. Weapons of mass destruction may thus again come to be used outside the sphere of state military activities, as seen in the Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995. This was the first widely publicized large-scale attempt at using weapons of mass destruction for terrorism. Similar or related actions cannot be ruled out in the future, as several interrelated developments have increased the risk that terrorists will use weapons of mass destruction.

Terrorists and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Terrorists' motivations are changing. A new breed of terrorists appears more inclined than terrorists of the past to commit acts of extreme violence. This set of new terrorists may include everything from ad hoc groups motivated by religious conviction or revenge, violent right-wing extremists, and apocalyptic cults. Secondly, weapons of mass destruction (WMD) could be especially valuable to terrorists who have no traditional political goals, but instead seek to enact divine retribution, to display prowess, or just to perform large-scale killing. Thirdly, terrorists will generally choose their technology to exploit the vulnerabilities of a particular society. Modern societies are particularly susceptible to weapons that are capable of killing many people at one time. Additionally, as governments implement more sophisticated security measures against terrorist attacks, terrorists may find weapons of mass destruction appealing as a way to overcome such countermeasures.

Commonly, weapons of mass destruction are defined and understood as weapons capable of causing mass casualties: nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The three classes of weapons differ greatly, however, in lethality, destructive power, feasibility of protection and defense, and in their potential missions. While biological weapons still have to be proven efficient on a larger scale, the weapons could possess lethality comparable to a single nuclear weapon. The ultimate weapons of mass destruction are nuclear weapons, which have enormous destructive powers. A single modern nuclear warhead can destroy a large city. One hundred warheads are said to have the capacity to destroy the United States and civilization as we know it.

With the break-up of the Soviet Union and the resulting economic struggles and weapons security issues in that region, black markets may now offer unprecedented access to weapons, components, and know-how. Furthermore, copy-cat efforts, where groups find both inspiration and ideas from previous attempts at large-scale terrorist violence, may spur additional terrorist attacks and maybe even some level of "competition" among terrorist groups. Ever since the Tokyo subway attack, incidents involving chemical and biological weapons have been on the rise. Before the attack, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) typically encountered a dozen cases a year involving threats or actual attempts to acquire or use chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear materials. In 1997, 71 cases were investigated; by 1999 the number had increased to 143, most of these hoaxes. Finally, advances in technology may have made terrorism with weapons of mass destruction easier to carry out. Looking at the technical history of nuclear devices, this becomes particularly evident. The first nuclear weapons, produced more than half a century ago, then represented state of the art technology and science. Today, first generation nuclear weapons are not only old, they are also regarded as primitive, with well-known designs presented in the scientific literature and physics textbooks.

Nuclear Weapon Production

To create a nuclear weapon, a designer must learn a whole set of manufacturing steps and develop confidence in the weapon's design. Any aspiring nuclear actor must be able to:

  • develop a design for the nuclear device or obtain such a design from a weapon-holding state
  • produce or obtain the fissile material for the nuclear core of the device
  • produce or obtain the non-nuclear parts of the device, including the high-explosive elements and triggering components that will detonate the nuclear core
  • verify the reliability of these various elements individually and as a system, and finally assemble all of these elements into a deliverable nuclear armament—a process often dubbed 'weaponization'

Due to the technical challenges, first generation fission weapons of either the gun-type or implosion type are likely to be the weapon of choice for nuclear terrorists. It is considerably simpler to make a bomb using enriched uranium than to make one using plutonium, but the critical mass is larger. Whether terrorists choose an implosion-type or a gun-type weapon may depend on the type and quantities of fissile material they have access to. The late Luis W. Alvarez, a Nobel Laureate in Physics and a prominent nuclear weapon scientist in the Manhattan Project, has emphasized the simplicity of constructing a nuclear explosive with highly enriched uranium (HEU):

With modern weapons-grade uranium, the background neutron rate is so low that terrorists, if they have such materials, would have a good chance of setting off a high-yield explosion simply by dropping one half of the material onto the other half. Most people seem unaware that if separated HEU is at hand it's a trivial job to set off a nuclear explosion … even a high school kid could make a bomb in short order.

Nuclear Production and Proliferation Concerns

The design and production of nuclear weapons today is a far simpler process than it was during the Manhattan Project in the early 1940s. Under the right set of conditions the required skills for making a crude nuclear weapon are minimal. Indeed, in a 1960s experiment conducted by the U.S. government, three newly graduated students were able to develop a workable nuclear weapon design using only publicly available information. In the years since, much more information has entered the public domain. The Los Alamos Primer: The First Lectures on How to Build an Atomic Bomb, for example, was declassified and published in 1992. The book originated as a series of five lectures given to the physicists of the Manhattan Project at its commencement, outlining the theoretical foundations of the intended bomb-making. Potential nuclear weapon producers can find useful sites within the information swamp on the Internet. While these are not likely to be "step-by-step" descriptions for nuclear weapon acquisition, parts of the openly available information on the Internet are likely to assist and even guide potential bomb-makers in the process. There may also be lessons for new bomb makers to learn from the now abandoned and dismantled South African nuclear weapons program. South Africa indigenously produced six nuclear devices based on the simple uranium gun-type weapon principle while under the constraints of an international embargo, thus relying solely on its own domestic resources.

The Alvarez statement above illuminates the fundamental difference between a terrorist and a state nuclear weapon. While potential nuclear terrorists probably seek results no more specific than an undefined "high yield explosion," military nuclear weapons must meet an array of requirements before they are fielded. These highly different requirements for performance and delivery can make weapons designed to meet the "terrorist nuclear weapon standards" less technically challenging than traditional state nuclear weapons.

A state must be concerned with safety, so it would be at least as concerned with a nuclear device not going off during storage and transportation as with optimizing the yield and detonation of the weapon. Such concerns might be given less consideration by terrorists, especially groups attracted to martyrdom. Concerns for reliability may also be low among terrorists. While an ignition failure or a fizzle yield would be unfortunate from the viewpoint of terrorists, it could have profound impact on the security of a state. States want fairly accurate and known yields to predict damages and the number of weapons needed. To a terrorist, any explosion in the lower kiloton range represents an unprecedented yield, and even failed plutonium explosives may serve as radiological dispersion devices. States need reliable, conventional delivery systems such as missiles or mortars. Such slender nuclear explosives are technically challenging and expensive, and weapons for military use are usually required in fairly large numbers. Crude terrorist nuclear weapons, on the other hand, could easily fit into a van, a truck, or even a hot-air balloon.

The primary technical barrier to terrorist nuclear capabilities is probably the difficulty of accessing highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium, the essential component of any nuclear weapon. Estimates of the quantities of fissile material needed for weapon production vary, depending on expected yield performance and technical sophistication. While the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) "Significant Quantities" (SQ) estimates are 25 kilos of HEU and eight kilos of plutonium, as little as one kilo of plutonium and 2.5 kilos of HEU may be sufficient with a highly sophisticated weapon design.

The vast production of fissile materials during the Cold War has left the world today with a staggering legacy of three million kilograms of weapons-usable material. Two-thirds of these materials are produced for military purposes, and more than half of the quantities are in excess of national security needs. Reports of lax security and accountancy of nuclear materials raise concerns about the possibility of a successful diversion of significant quantities of weapons-usable materials, particularly in the former Soviet Union. While the potential consequences of proliferation are chilling, the problems of fissile weapons-usable material management have proven anything but simple to solve.

Protecting Nuclear Materials in Russia

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), 603 metric tons of highly enriched uranium and plutonium—enough to produce almost 40,000 nuclear bombs—are at risk of nuclear material theft in Russia. This material can be used directly in a nuclear weapon without further enrichment or reprocessing. The material is considered to be highly attractive to theft because it is not very radioactive and therefore relatively safe to handle, and it can easily be carried by one or two people in portable containers or as components from dismantled weapons. As of February 2001, after nearly a decade of cooperation, U.S.-assisted security upgrades were completed or partially completed at slightly less than one-third of the weapons-useable materials sites in Russia. Internal U.S. reviews indicate that the security systems already installed do not reduce the risk of theft of nuclear material at approximately one quarter of the sites.

To protect, control, and keep track of nuclear materials, systems of so-called "MPC&A" (Material Protection, Control, and Accounting) are installed at all nuclear facilities. The systems are intended to protect material against theft or diversion, and to detect such events if they occur. To prevent the spread of nuclear materials in Russia, existing security systems at Russian facilities have been upgraded with U.S. cooperation. Under this program the U.S. Department of Energy is installing site-tailored and integrated security systems. The security enhancements include such features as entry/exit barriers, traps, personnel access control, intrusion detection, alarm communication, video surveillance, response, and computerized systems for nuclear material accounting.

The security systems installed by the DOE are reducing the risk of theft of nuclear material in Russia, but hundreds of metric tons of nuclear material still lack improved security systems. As of February 2001 the DOE had installed completed or partially completed security systems in 115 buildings, protecting about 32 percent of the 603 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear material identified as being at risk of theft or diversion from Russia. The DOE installed completed systems in 81 buildings, protecting about 86 metric tons, or about 14 percent, of the nuclear material. It has also installed partially completed security systems, known as rapid upgrades, in 34 additional buildings, protecting about 106 metric tons, or 18 percent, of the nuclear material.

Specialists from Russian law enforcement bodies have identified poor physical protection as the primary causes of nuclear thefts, along with the acute shortage of funds allocated for nuclear material protection, control and accounting. The ratio of prevented to successful thefts remains uncertain due to insufficient accounting of nuclear material at some facilities and the failure to carry out an overall national fissile material inventory exercise. A close call apparently took place a couple of years ago, when the Russian Federal Security Services intercepted an attempt to divert 18.5 kg of "radioactive materials that might have been used in the production of nuclear weapons." Russian officials, stating that the perpetrators "could have done serious damage to the Russian state" later confirmed this attempt, making it the first confirmed case that apparently involved a conspiracy to steal enough materials for a bomb in a single stroke.

According to a research group at Stanford University, over the past 10 years at least 40 kg of weapons-usable uranium and plutonium have been stolen from poorly protected nuclear facilities in the former Soviet Union. While most of this material was subsequently retrieved, at least two kg of highly enriched uranium stolen from a reactor in Georgia remains missing. In an official Illicit Trafficking Database governed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about 600 illicit trafficking incidents have been recorded since January 1, 1993. Of these, about 400 incidents are confirmed by states. A little less than half of the confirmed cases (175) involve nuclear material, including 18 cases with highly enriched uranium or plutonium.

None of the quantities of seized nuclear material is enough to produce a workable nuclear explosive and no endpoint, or buyers, have been identified. Yet the seizures produce a disturbing picture—clearly, only one successful transfer of high-quality nuclear material could be one too many. The cases of HEU and plutonium theft represent as large a proportion of the total as was the case in the early 1990s, indicating a remaining market, or at least a remaining interest in fissile materials. Successful transfers will never be registered, and the identities of the smugglers remain unknown. Some of the material traveled across wide distances and through several border crossings, illustrating the difficulty of detecting illicit unirradiated fissile material. The seized quantities may just be test samples for larger amount of materials available for sale.

Recent History and the Future

Nuclear Terrorism: Threats and Challenges

The September 11, 2001, large-scale terrorist attacks were a dire reminder of the destructive powers of terrorism. The spectacular and innovative attacks against U.S. domestic targets were performed with conventional terrorist means. The magnitude, crudeness, and the efficacy of which these actions were carried out, however, may point in the direction of future large-scale terrorist uses of weapons of mass destruction. The multiple attacks spurred a tidal wave of rumors about imminent large-scale terrorist attacks, including terrorists with low-flying crop-dusters filled with biological materials and trucks destined for city centers full of nasty toxicants. And indeed, letters containing anthrax were soon mailed to several U.S. recipients. Few were infected, but the radius of psychological damage far exceeded that of the physical impact.

Many, many questions have been raised and additional ones will evolve in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the United States. The more fundamental questions naturally deal with the possibility of future "superterrorism" and the new security paradigm we may be facing. Following the U.S. terrorist attacks the Secretary General of the United Nations singled out terrorists' use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as the gravest threat the world faces. Former U.S. senator Sam Nunn echoed this assertion: "The most significant, clear, and present danger we face is the threat posed by nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. The question is not whether we must prepare for terrorism or for attacks with weapons of mass destruction. These two threats … if joined together, become our worst nightmare." While the risk of nuclear terrorism may be remote, it cannot be excluded. Technically, crude nuclear weapon production is likely to be within range of the capabilities of some terrorist groups. Rigorous standards and means for the protection, control, and accounting of fissile materials, the essential ingredients of any nuclear device, are thus of vital importance.

Terrorist groups aspiring to weapons of mass destruction capabilities face strong practical and strategic constraints. Use of conventional weaponry is likely to remain the approach of choice for most terrorists. However, as the world experiences new acts of terror, provable and strong interest amongst some terrorist groups in acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities does not allow us to ignore the risk of nuclear terrorism. The use of crude (HEU) nuclear weapons provides the opportunity for distinct, original, fairly reliable, and highly visible acts of large-scale terrorism, without prior testing of the devices. The impact is likely to be strong, both physically and psychologically. Even crude nuclear explosives have the potential of introducing yields in the lower kiloton range, at least three times the magnitude of the most powerful conventional explosive ever deployed.

Nuclear Terrorism: U.S. and International Responses

Technical barriers should not be regarded as sufficient to prevent future terrorist nuclear violence. Both the flow of knowledge and general descriptions of crude weapon designs into the popular sphere has been too prominent. Terrorist nuclear weapon standards are, moreover, likely lower than state (military) nuclear weapon requirements, potentially making production of terrorist nuclear weapons less challenging. In addition, some terrorist groups now apparently possess unprecedented resources for performing their terror activities. Acquisition of sufficient qualities and quantities of fissile material is the most formidable obstacle to nuclear terrorist capabilities. It is therefore imperative that preventing terrorists from gaining access to fissile materials be a high priority component of the new global battle against terrorism. The transnational nature of contemporary international terrorism can make inadequately secured nuclear material anywhere a threat to nations everywhere.

With U.S. assistance over the past decade, Russia has made some progress in securing dangerous weapons and material, but more must be done. In January 2001 Republican Howard Baker, a former senator and White House chief of staff, and Democrat Lloyd Cutler, a former White House counsel, chaired a bipartisan panel on the security of Russia's nuclear materials. Their conclusions were not encouraging. Their report said, "The most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons usable material in Russia could be stolen and sold to terrorists or hostile nation states and used against American troops abroad or citizens at home." Following a year-long review, the George W. Bush administration concluded that most of the U.S. non-proliferation assistance programs are cost-effective and beneficial to national security. But these conclusions are not properly reflected in the administration's budget proposal. Despite the threats, the assistance to Russia remains a highly politicized issue. Some programs receive small increases, others remain flat, and still others are targeted for spending cuts.

The Baker-Cutler report concludes that US$3 billion per year would go a long way to address the problem of poorly guarded fissile materials in Russia. Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr., argues that "That's a lot of money, but we're spending $7.8 billion on national missile defense research and development in fiscal year 2002 and the administration has requested a similar amount for fiscal year 2003." According to the senator, it doesn't make sense to focus on the potential last line of defense when we need to do so much to bolster the more achievable first line of defense. The additional resources that should be allocated could be used to double the size of the U.S. Department of Energy's $174 million Materials Protection, Control and Accounting program, which safeguards Russia's nuclear materials.

Russia recently signed an agreement to open up many more nuclear sites to U.S. assistance, providing an opportunity to substantially increase the security of nuclear stockpiles guarded by little more than a chain-link fence. Another, more controversial, proposal is to reduce Russia's Soviet-era debt in return for Russian investment of the proceeds in non-proliferation programs. According to Senator Biden, debt swaps are a win-win proposition: Russia can avoid an expected payment crunch next year while bolstering security through protection of sensitive materials and technologies.

In response to the threat of nuclear terrorism, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in March 2002 approved an action plan designed to upgrade worldwide protection against acts of terrorism involving nuclear and other radioactive materials. In approving the plan, the IAEA recognizes that the first line of defense against nuclear terrorism is the strong physical protection of nuclear facilities and materials. The plan covers eight areas: physical protection of nuclear material and nuclear facilities, detection of malicious activities (such as illicit trafficking) involving nuclear and other radioactive materials, strengthening of national state systems for nuclear material accountancy and control, security of radioactive sources, assessment of safety and security related vulnerabilities at nuclear facilities, response to malicious acts or threats thereof, adherence to international agreements and guidelines, and enhancement of program co-ordination and information management for nuclear security related matters.

These activities are not a substitute for national measures, nor can they diminish the primary responsibility of nation states on all matters of security; rather, the measures are designed to supplement and reinforce national efforts in areas where international cooperation is indispensable to the strengthening of nuclear security. These areas include better border controls and enhanced national and international mechanisms for responding to radiological emergencies. A number of states, including Australia, Great Britain, Japan, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and the United States pledged money to a special fund set up to support the plan. Other states have announced support for the plan. If applied, current supplies of nuclear material and other radioactive sources may be kept under firmer lock and key from terrorists.


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Morten Bremer Maerli


Late 1941 The United States establishes a secret program, which came to be known as the Manhattan Project, to develop an atomic bomb.

1992 The book The Los Alamos Primer: The First Lectures onHow to Build an Atomic Bomb, is declassified and published. The book originated as a series of five lectures given to the physicists of the Manhattan Project at its commencement, outlining the theoretical foundations of the intended bomb-making.

1995 A container containing the radioactive substance cesium, planted by Chechen rebels, is removed from a heavily used Moscow park.

1998 A key aide of Osama bin Laden's is arrested in Germany and charged with trying to obtain nuclear material.

February 2001 After nearly a decade of cooperation, U.S.-assisted security upgrades are completed or partially completed at slightly less than one-third of the weapons-useable materials sites in Russia.

September 11, 2001 Devastating terrorist attacks take place at the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon near Washington, DC. In the weeks following the attacks, a secret intelligence alert to a small number of U.S. government agencies warns that terrorists are thought to have obtained a nuclear weapon and planned to smuggle it into New York City.

The Manhattan Project

Alarmed by rumors that the Nazis were developing an atomic bomb, the United States initiated its own program under the Army Corps of Engineers in June 1942. Scientists needed fissionable material, which meant uranium (U-235) or plutonium (Pu-239), the only suitable substances known at the time. A large but secret crash production program was initiated at facilities at different locations in the United States.

Two types of nuclear explosives were developed in Los Alamos, New Mexico. One, nicknamed "Little Boy," was a gun-type weapon that projected a slug of uranium into the center of another piece of uranium, resulting in a nuclear explosion. The second bomb, "Fat Man," used implosion to detonate plutonium. Explosives surrounded a plutonium ball. When detonated, they would compress the plutonium, causing a nuclear explosion. In August 1945 the two weapons were dropped with devastating effects on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST)

The mission of the NEST is to search out and, where necessary, de-fuse or destroy nuclear material or nuclear weapons as safely as possible. It is also used in delineating the distribution of radioactive material resulting from a nuclear accident. The team is based in Nevada. Along with the ability to deploy about 600 people, it also has about 150 tons of equipment at its disposal. NEST's air force consists of four helicopters equipped with radiological search systems and three airplanes. The equipment includes various nuclear radiation detection systems developed for use in surveying an area for lost or diverted nuclear weapons and special nuclear material.

An elite group, NEST has hidden primarily behind a cloak of secrecy, so much so that while the organization's existence has been public, its activities have only been visible to those intimately involved with their operations. NEST's cooperation with first responders like police, fire and other public safety officials is close. In the last few years different governmental agencies have been banding together to train for the frightening event in which a terrorist does field a weapon of mass destruction in the United States.

Since NEST's creation, about 100 threats involving alleged nuclear devices or radioactivity have come to its attention. At least a dozen, and possibly more than twice that number, have resulted in deployment of NEST personnel. NEST, in general, will not confirm or deny when or whether it has deployed to a particular city or region. However, it has been reported that between 1975 and 1981 NEST personnel were sent to investigate threats in Boston, Los Angeles, Spokane, Pittsburgh, New York, Sacramento, Tennessee, and Reno.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)

The IAEA is an independent, intergovernmental science and technology-based organization in the United Nations family that serves as the global focal point for nuclear cooperation. The agency assists national states in using nuclear science and technology for various peaceful purposes, including the generation of electricity. The IAEA develops nuclear safety standards and, based on these standards, promotes the achievement and maintenance of high levels of safety in applications of nuclear energy, as well as the protection of human health and the environment against ionizing radiation. The IAEA also verifies that states comply with their commitments under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and other non-proliferation agreements, to use nuclear material and facilities only for peaceful purposes.

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Nuclear Terrorism: Threats, Challenges, and Responses

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