Nuclear terrorism refers to an act of terrorism in which a person or people belonging to a terrorist organization detonates a nuclear device. Some definitions of nuclear terrorism include the sabotage of a nuclear facility and/or the detonation of a radiological device, colloquially termed a dirty bomb, but consensus is lacking. In legal terms, nuclear terrorism is an offense committed if a person unlawfully and intentionally “uses in any way radioactive material … with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury; or with the intent to cause substantial damage to property or to the environment; or with the intent to compel a natural or legal person, an international organization or a State to do or refrain from doing an act”, according to the 2005 United Nations International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.
The possibility of terrorist organizations using nuclear weapons (including those of a small size, such as those contained within suitcases) is something which is known of within U.S. culture, and at times previously discussed within the political settings of the U.S. It is considered plausible that terrorists could acquire a nuclear weapon. However, despite thefts and trafficking of small amounts of fissile material, all low-concern and less than Category III Special nuclear material (SNM), there is no credible evidence that any terrorist group has succeeded in obtaining Category I SNM, the necessary multi-kilogram critical mass amounts of weapons grade plutonium required to make a nuclear weapon.
Main article: Vulnerability of nuclear plants to attack
Nuclear terrorism could include:
- Acquiring or fabricating a nuclear weapon
- Fabricating a dirty bomb
- Attacking a nuclear reactor, e.g., by disrupting critical inputs (e.g. water supply)
- Attacking or taking over a nuclear-armed submarine, plane or base.
Nuclear terrorism, according to a 2011 report published by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, can be executed and distinguished via four pathways:
- The use of a nuclear weapon that has been stolen or purchased on the black market
- The use of a crude explosive device built by terrorists or by nuclear scientists who the terrorist organization has furtively recruited
- The use of an explosive device constructed by terrorists and their accomplices using their own fissile material
- The acquisition of fissile material from a nation-state.
Former U.S. President Barack Obama called nuclear terrorism "the single most important national security threat that we face". In his first speech to the U.N. Security Council, President Obama said that "Just one nuclear weapon exploded in a city -- be it New York or Moscow, Tokyo or Beijing, London or Paris -- could kill hundreds of thousands of people". It would "destabilize our security, our economies, and our very way of life".
As early as December 1945, politicians worried about the possibility of smuggling nuclear weapons into the United States, though this was still in the context of a battle between the superpowers of the Cold War. Congressmen quizzed the "father of the atomic bomb," J. Robert Oppenheimer, about the possibility of detecting a smuggled atomic bomb:
Sen. Millikin: We... have mine-detecting devices, which are rather effective... I was wondering if anything of that kind might be available to use as a defense against that particular type of use of atomic bombs.
Dr. Oppenheimer: If you hired me to walk through the cellars of Washington to see whether there were atomic bombs, I think my most important tool would be a screwdriver to open the crates and look. I think that just walking by, swinging a little gadget would not give me the information.
This sparked further work on the question of smuggled atomic devices during the 1950s.
Discussions of non-state nuclear terrorism among experts go back at least to the 1970s. In 1975 The Economist warned that "You can make a bomb with a few pounds of plutonium. By the mid-1980s the power stations may easily be turning out 200,000 lb of the stuff each year. And each year, unless present methods are drastically changed, many thousands of pounds of it will be transferred from one plant to another as it proceeds through the fuel cycle. The dangers of robbery in transit are evident.... Vigorous co-operation between governments and the International Atomic Energy Agency could, even at this late stage, make the looming perils loom a good deal smaller." And the New York Times commented in 1981 that The Nuclear Emergency Search Team's "origins go back to the aftershocks of the Munich Olympic massacre in mid-1972. Until that time, no one in the United States Government had thought seriously about the menace of organized, international terrorism, much less nuclear terrorism. There was a perception in Washington that the value of what is called 'special nuclear material' - plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) - was so enormous that the strict financial accountability of the private contractors who dealt with it would be enough to protect it from falling into the wrong hands. But it has since been revealed that the physical safeguarding of bomb-grade material against theft was almost scandalously neglected."
This discussion took on a larger public character in the 1980s after NBC aired Special Bulletin, a television dramatization of a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States. In 1986 a private panel of experts known as the International Task Force on the Prevention of Terrorism released a report urging all nuclear-armed states to beware the dangers of terrorism and work on equipping their nuclear arsenals with permissive action links. "The probability of nuclear terrorism," the experts warned, "is increasing and the consequences for urban and industrial societies could be catastrophic."
The World Institute for Nuclear Security is an organization which seeks to prevent nuclear terrorism and improve world nuclear security. It works alongside the International Atomic Energy Agency. WINS was formed in 2008, less than a year after a break-in at the Pelindaba nuclear facility in South Africa, which contained enough enriched uranium to make several nuclear bombs.
The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) is an international partnership of 86 nations and 4 official observers working to improve capacity on a national and international level for prevention, detection, and response to a nuclear terrorist event. Partners join the GICNT by endorsing the Statement of Principles, a set of broad nuclear security objectives. GICNT partner nations organize and host workshops, conferences, and exercises to share best practices for implementing the Statement of Principles. The GICNT also holds Plenary meetings to discuss improvements and changes to the partnership.
Nuclear weapons materials on the black market are a global concern, and there is concern about the possible detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon by a militant group in a major city, with significant loss of life and property.
It is feared that a terrorist group could detonate a dirty bomb, a type of radiological weapon. A dirty bomb is made of any radioactive source and a conventional explosive. There would be no nuclear blast and likely no fatalities, but the radioactive material is dispersed and can cause extensive fallout depending on the material used. A foot-long stick of radioactive cobalt could be taken from a food irradiation plant and combined with ten pounds of explosives to contaminate 1,000 square kilometers and make some areas uninhabitable for decades. There are other radiological weapons called radiological exposure devices where an explosive is not necessary. A radiological weapon may be very appealing to terrorist groups as it is highly successful in instilling fear and panic among a population (particularly because of the threat of radiation poisoning) and would contaminate the immediate area for some period of time, disrupting attempts to repair the damage and subsequently inflicting significant economic losses.
According to Bunn & Wier, Osama bin Laden requested a ruling (a fatwa), and was subsequently informed via a cleric of Saudi Arabia during 2003, of it being in accordance with Islamic law for him to use a nuclear device against civilians if it were the only course of action available to him in a situation of defending Muslims against the actions of the U.S. military.
According to leaked diplomatic documents, al-Qaeda can produce radiological weapons, after sourcing nuclear material and recruiting rogue scientists to build "dirty bombs". Al-Qaeda, along with some North Caucasus terrorist groups that seek to establish an Islamic Caliphate in Russia, have consistently stated they seek nuclear weapons and have tried to acquire them. Al-Qaeda has sought nuclear weapons for almost two decades by attempting to purchase stolen nuclear material and weapons and has sought nuclear expertise on numerous occasions. Osama bin Laden stated that the acquisition of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction is a “religious duty.” While pressure from a wide range of counter-terrorist activity has hampered Al-Qaeda’s ability to manage such a complex project, there is no sign that it has jettisoned its goals of acquiring fissile material. Statements made as recently as 2008 indicate that Al-Qaeda’s nuclear ambitions are still very strong.
ISIS has demonstrated ambition to use weapons of mass destruction. Although the chances of them obtaining a nuclear bomb are small, the group have been trying/suspected of trying to obtain a nuclear dirty bomb. In July 2014, ISIS militants captured nuclear materials from Mosul University. In a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Iraq's UN Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim said that the materials had been kept at the university and "can be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction". However, Nuclear experts regarded the threat as insignificant. International Atomic Energy Agency spokeswoman Gill Tudor said that the seized materials were "low grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk".
In October 2015 it was reported that Moldovan authorities working with the FBI have stopped four attempts from 2010 to 2015 by gangs with suspected connections to Russia's intelligence services that sought to sell radioactive material to ISIS and other Middle Eastern extremists. The last reported case came in February 2015 when a smuggler with a large amount of radioactive caesium specifically sought a buyer from ISIS. The Criminal organizations are thriving on black market nuclear materials in Moldova. Since relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated, it is difficult to know whether smugglers are succeeding in selling radioactive material originating from Russia to Islamist terrorists and elsewhere.
In March 2016, it was reported that a senior Belgian nuclear official was being monitored by ISIS suspects linked to the November 2015 Paris attacks leading Belgium authorities to suspect that ISIS was planning on abducting the official to obtain nuclear materials for a dirty bomb.
In April 2016, EU and NATO security chiefs warned that ISIS are plotting to carry out nuclear attacks on the UK and Europe.
North Caucasus terrorists
North Caucasus terrorists have attempted to seize a nuclear submarine armed with nuclear weapons. They have also engaged in reconnaissance activities on nuclear storage facilities and have repeatedly threatened to sabotage nuclear facilities. Similar to Al-Qaeda, these groups’ activities have been hampered by counter-terrorism activity; nevertheless they remain committed to launching such a devastating attack within Russia.
The Japanese terror cult Aum Shinrikyo, which used nerve gas to attack a Tokyo subway in 1995, has also tried to acquire nuclear weapons. However, according to nuclear terrorism researchers at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, there is no evidence that they continue to do so.
Incidents involving nuclear material
Information reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) shows "a persistent problem with the illicit trafficking in nuclear and other radioactive materials, thefts, losses and other unauthorized activities". The IAEA Illicit Nuclear Trafficking Database notes 1,266 incidents reported by 99 countries over the last 12 years, including 18 incidents involving HEU or plutonium trafficking:
- There have been 18 incidents of theft or loss of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium confirmed by the IAEA.
- British academic Shaun Gregory alleged in 2009 that terrorists had attacked Pakistani nuclear facilities three times; twice in 2007 and once in 2008. However, the then Director General ISPRAthar Abbas said the claims were "factually incorrect", adding that the sites were "military facilities, not nuclear installations".
- In November 2007, burglars with unknown intentions infiltrated the Pelindaba nuclear research facility near Pretoria, South Africa. The burglars escaped without acquiring any of the uranium held at the facility.
- In June 2007, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released to the press the name of Adnan Gulshair el Shukrijumah, allegedly the operations leader for developing tactical plans for detonating nuclear bombs in several American cities simultaneously.
- In November 2006, MI5 warned that al-Qaida were planning on using nuclear weapons against cities in the United Kingdom by obtaining the bombs via clandestine means.
- In February 2006, Oleg Khinsagov of Russia was arrested in Georgia, along with three Georgian accomplices, with 79.5 grams of 89 percent HEU.
- In November 2006, the Alexander Litvinenko poisoning with radioactive polonium "represents an ominous landmark: the beginning of an era of nuclear terrorism," according to Andrew J. Patterson.
- In June 2002, U.S. citizen José Padilla was arrested for allegedly planning a radiological attack on the city of Chicago; however, he was never charged with such conduct. He was instead convicted of charges that he conspired to "murder, kidnap and maim" people overseas.
In 2009, a paper published in West Point Military Academy's journal alleged that Pakistan's nuclear sites had been attacked by al-Qaeda and the Taliban at least three times. However, Pakistan's military rejected the allegations. Talat Masood, a political analyst, said that the nuclear link was "absolute nonsense". Interestingly, all three attacks were suicide and appeared to aim at causing maximum damage and not seizing weapons. In January 2010, it was revealed that the US army was training a specialised unit "to seal off and snatch back" Pakistani nuclear weapons in the event that militants would obtain a nuclear device or materials that could make one. Pakistan supposedly possesses about 80 nuclear warheads. US officials refused to speak on the record about the American safety plans.
A study by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University titled "Securing the Bomb 2010," found that Pakistan's stockpile "faces a greater threat from Islamic terror groups seeking nuclear weapons than any other nuclear stockpile on earth." In 2016, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Vincent R. Stewart said that Pakistan "continues to take steps to improve its nuclear security, and is aware of the threat presented by extremists to its program".
According to Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former investigator with the CIA and the US Department of Energy, there is "a greater possibility of a nuclear meltdown in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world. The region has more violent extremists than any other, the country is unstable, and its arsenal of nuclear weapons is expanding." In 2015, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that the US has confidence that Pakistan is "well aware of the range of potential threats to its nuclear arsenal". He added that the US is "confident that Pakistan has a professional and dedicated security force that understands the importance and the high priority that the world places on nuclear security".
Nuclear weapons expert David Albright and author of "Peddling Peril" has also expressed concerns that Pakistan's stockpile may not be secure despite assurances by both Pakistan and U.S. government. He stated that Pakistan "has had many leaks from its program of classified information and sensitive nuclear equipment, and so you have to worry that it could be acquired in Pakistan". In 2015, Richard G. Olson, former US Ambassador to Pakistan, expressed confidence in the capabilities of the Pakistani security forces to control and secure its nuclear weapons. He added that Islamabad has "specifically taken into account the insider threat".
A 2016 study by the Congressional Research Service titled 'Pakistan's Nuclear Weapons', noted that Pakistan's "initiatives, such as strengthened export control laws, improved personnel security, and international nuclear security cooperation programs, have improved Pakistan's nuclear security".
President Barack Obama has reviewed Homeland Security policy and concluded that "attacks using improvised nuclear devices ... pose a serious and increasing national security risk". In their presidential contest, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry both agreed that the most serious danger facing the United States is the possibility that terrorists could obtain a nuclear bomb. Most nuclear-weapon analysts agree that "building such a device would pose few technological challenges to reasonably competent terrorists". The main barrier is acquiring highly enriched uranium.
In 2004, Graham Allison, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Clinton administration, wrote that “on the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not". In 2004, Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information stated: "I wouldn't be at all surprised if nuclear weapons are used over the next 15 or 20 years, first and foremost by a terrorist group that gets its hands on a Russian nuclear weapon or a Pakistani nuclear weapon". In 2006, Robert Galluccii, Dean of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, estimated that, “it is more likely than not that al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates will detonate a nuclear weapon in a U.S. city within the next five to ten years." Despite a number of claims, there is no credible evidence that any terrorist group has yet succeeded in obtaining a nuclear bomb or the materials needed to make one.
Detonation of a nuclear weapon in a major U.S. city could kill more than 500,000 people and cause more than a trillion dollars in damage. Hundreds of thousands could die from fallout, the resulting fires and collapsing buildings. In this scenario, uncontrolled fires would burn for days and emergency services and hospitals would be completely overwhelmed. The likely socio-economic consequences in the United States outside the immediate vicinity of an attack, and possibly in other countries, would also likely be far-reaching. A Rand Corporation report speculates that there may be an exodus from other urban centers by populations fearful of another nuclear attack.
The Obama administration will focus on reducing the risk of high-consequence, non-traditional nuclear threats. Nuclear security is to be strengthened by enhancing "nuclear detection architecture and ensuring that our own nuclear materials are secure," and by "establishing well-planned, well-rehearsed, plans for co-ordinated response." According to senior Pentagon officials, the United States will make "thwarting nuclear-armed terrorists a central aim of American strategic nuclear planning."Nuclear attribution is another strategy being pursued to counter terrorism. Led by the National Technical Nuclear Forensics Center, attribution would allow the government to determine the likely source of nuclear material used in the event of a nuclear attack. This would prevent terrorist groups, and any states willing to help them, from being able to pull off a covert attack without assurance of retaliation.
In July 2010 medical personnel from the U.S. Army practiced the techniques they would use to treat people injured by an atomic blast. The exercises were carried out at a training center in Indiana, and were set up to "simulate the aftermath of a small nuclear bomb blast, set off in a U.S. city by terrorists."
Stuxnet is a computer worm discovered in June 2010 that is believed to have been created by the United States and Israel to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
Nuclear power plants
After 9/11, nuclear power plants were to be prepared for an attack by a large, well-armed terrorist group. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in revising its security rules, decided not to require that plants be able to defend themselves against groups carrying sophisticated weapons. According to a study by the Government Accountability Office, the N.R.C. appeared to have based its revised rules "on what the industry considered reasonable and feasible to defend against rather than on an assessment of the terrorist threat itself". If terrorist groups could sufficiently damage safety systems to cause a core meltdown at a nuclear power plant, and/or sufficiently damage spent fuel pools, such an attack could lead to widespread radioactive contamination. The Federation of American Scientists have said that if nuclear power use is to expand significantly, nuclear facilities will have to be made extremely safe from attacks that could release massive quantities of radioactivity into the community. New reactor designs have features of passive safety, which may help. In the United States, the NRC carries out "Force on Force" (FOF) exercises at all Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) sites at least once every three years.
The peace group Plowshares have shown how nuclear weapons facilities can be penetrated, and the groups actions represent extraordinary breaches of security at nuclear weapons plants in the United States. The National Nuclear Security Administration has acknowledged the seriousness of the 2012 Plowshares action. Non-proliferation policy experts have questioned "the use of private contractors to provide security at facilities that manufacture and store the government's most dangerous military material".
In late 1974, President Gerald Ford was warned that the FBI received a communication from an extortionist wanting $200,000 ($1,000,000 today) after claiming that a nuclear weapon had been placed somewhere in Boston. A team of experts rushed in from the United States Atomic Energy Commission but their radiation detection gear arrived at a different airport. Federal officials then rented a fleet of vans to carry concealed radiation detectors around the city but forgot to bring the tools they needed to install the equipment. The incident was later found to be a hoax. However, the government's response made clear the need for an agency capable of effectively responding to such threats in the future. Later that year, President Ford created the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST), which under the Atomic Energy Act is tasked with investigating the "illegal use of nuclear materials within the United States, including terrorist threats involving the use of special nuclear materials".
One of its first responses by the Nuclear Emergency Search/Support Team was in Spokane, Washington on November 23, 1976. An unknown group called the "Days of Omega" had mailed an extortion threat claiming it would explode radioactive containers of water all over the city unless paid $500,000 ($2,200,000 today). Presumably, the radioactive containers had been stolen from the Hanford Site, less than 150 miles to the southwest. Immediately, NEST flew in a support aircraft from Las Vegas and began searching for non-natural radiation, but found nothing. No one ever responded despite the elaborate instructions given, or made any attempt to claim the (fake) money which was kept under surveillance. Within days, the incident was deemed a hoax, though the case was never solved. To avoid panic, the public was not notified until a few years later.
The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (CTR), which is also known as the Nunn–Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction, is a 1992 law sponsored by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. The CTR established a program that gave the U.S. Department of Defense a direct stake in securing loose fissile material inside the since-dissolved USSR. According to Graham Allison, director of Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, this law is a major reason why not a single nuclear weapon has been discovered outside the control of Russia’s nuclear custodians. The Belfer Center is itself running the Project on Managing the Atom, Matthew Bunn is a co-principal investigator of the project, Martin B. Malin is its executive director (circa. 2014).
In August 2002, the United States launched a program to track and secure enriched uranium from 24 Soviet-style reactors in 16 countries, in order to reduce the risk of the materials falling into the hands of terrorists or "rogue states". The first such operation was Project Vinca, "a multinational, public-private effort to remove nuclear material from a poorly-secured Yugoslav research institute." The project has been hailed as "a nonproliferation success story" with the "potential to inform broader 'global cleanout' efforts to address one of the weakest links in the nuclear nonproliferation chain: insufficiently secured civilian nuclear research facilities."
In 2004, the U.S. Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) was established in order to consolidate nuclear stockpiles of highly enriched uranium (HEU), plutonium, and assemble nuclear weapons at fewer locations. Additionally, the GTRI converted HEU fuels to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuels, which has prevented their use in making a nuclear bomb within a short amount of time. HEU that has not been converted to LEU has been shipped back to secure sites, while amplified security measures have taken hold around vulnerable nuclear facilities.
Robert Gallucci, President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, argues that traditional deterrence is not an effective approach toward terrorist groups bent on causing a nuclear catastrophe.Henry Kissinger, stating the wide availability of nuclear weapons makes deterrence “decreasingly effective and increasingly hazardous.” Preventive strategies, which advocate the elimination of an enemy before it is able to mount an attack, are risky and controversial, therefore difficult to implement. Gallucci believes that “the United States should instead consider a policy of expanded deterrence, which focuses not on the would-be nuclear terrorists but on those states that may deliberately transfer or inadvertently lead nuclear weapons and materials to them. By threatening retaliation against those states, the United States may be able to deter that which it cannot physically prevent.”.
Graham Allison makes a similar case, arguing that the key to expanded deterrence is coming up with ways of tracing nuclear material to the country that forged the fissile material. “After a nuclear bomb detonates, nuclear forensic cops would collect debris samples and send them to a laboratory for radiological analysis. By identifying unique attributes of the fissile material, including its impurities and contaminants, one could trace the path back to its origin.” The process is analogous to identifying a criminal by fingerprints. “The goal would be twofold: first, to deter leaders of nuclear states from selling weapons to terrorists by holding them accountable for any use of their own weapons; second, to give every leader the incentive to tightly secure their nuclear weapons and materials.”
John Mueller, a scholar of international relations at the Ohio State University, is a prominent nuclear skeptic. He makes three claims: (1) the nuclear intent and capability of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda has been “fundamentally exaggerated;” (2) “the likelihood a terrorist group will come up with an atomic bomb seems to be vanishingly small;” and (3) policymakers are guilty of an “atomic obsession” that has led to “substantively counterproductive” policies premised on “worst case fantasies.” In his book Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda he argues that: "anxieties about terrorists obtaining nuclear weapons are essentially baseless: a host of practical and organizational difficulties make their likelihood of success almost vanishingly small".
Intelligence officials have pushed back, testifying before Congress that the inability to recognize the shifting modus oparandi of terrorist groups was part of the reason why members of Aum Shinrikyo, for example, were “not on anybody’s radar screen.” Matthew Bunn, associate professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, argues that “Theft of HEU and plutonium is not a hypothetical worry, it is an ongoing reality." Almost all of the stolen HEU and plutonium that has been seized over the years had never been missed before it was seized. The IAEA Illicit Nuclear Trafficking Database notes 1,266 incidents reported by 99 countries over the last 12 years, including 18 incidents involving HEU or plutonium trafficking.
Keir Lieber and Daryl Press argue that despite the prominent U.S. focus on nuclear terrorism, "the fear of terrorist transfer [of nuclear weapons] seems greatly exaggerated... [and] the dangers of a state giving nuclear weapons to terrorists have been overstated." A decade of terrorism statistics show a strong correlation between attack fatalities and the attribution of the attack, and Lieber and Press assert that "neither a terror group nor a state sponsor would remain anonymous after a nuclear terror attack." About 75 percent of attacks with 100 or more fatalities were traced to the culprits; also, 97 percent of attacks on U.S. soil or that of a major ally (resulting in 10 or more deaths) were attributed to the guilty party. Lieber and Press conclude that the lack of anonymity would deter a state from providing terrorist groups with nuclear weapons.
The use of HEU and plutonium in satellites has raised the concern that a sufficiently motivated rogue state could retrieve materials from a satellite crash (notably on land as occurred with Kosmos-954, Mars-96 and Fobos-Grunt) and then use these to supplement the yield of an already working nuclear device. This has been discussed recently in the UN and the Nuclear Emergency Search Team regularly consults with Roscosmos and NASA about satellite re-entries that may have contained such materials. As yet no parts were verifiably recovered from Mars 96 but recent Wikileaks releases suggest that one of the "cells" may have been recovered by mountain climbers in Chile.
On April 12–13, 2010, President of the United States Barack Obama initiated and hosted the first-ever nuclear security summit in Washington D.C., commonly known as the Washington Nuclear Security Summit. The goal was to strengthen international cooperation to prevent nuclear terrorism. President Obama, along with nearly fifty world leaders, discussed the threat of nuclear terrorism, what steps needed to be taken to mitigate illicit nuclear trafficking, and how to secure nuclear material. The Summit was successful in that it produced a consensus delineating nuclear terrorism as a serious threat to all nations. Finally, the Summit produced over four-dozen specific actions embodied in commitments by individual countries and the Joint Work Plan. However, world leaders at the Summit failed to agree on baseline protections for weapons-usable material, and no agreement was reached on ending the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in civil nuclear functions. Many of the shortcomings of the Washington Nuclear Security Summit were addressed at the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in March 2012.
According to Graham Allison, director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the objectives of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul are to continue to, “assess the progress made since the Washington Summit and propose additional cooperation measures to (1) Combat the threat of nuclear terrorism, (2) protect nuclear materials and related facilities, and (3) prevent illicit trafficking in nuclear materials."
In 2011, the British news agency, the Telegraph, received leaked documents regarding the Guantanamo Bay interrogations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The documents cited Khalid saying that, if Osama bin Laden is captured or killed by the Coalition of the Willing, an al-Qaeda sleeper cell will detonate a "weapon of mass destruction" in a "secret location" in Europe, and promised it would be "a nuclear hellstorm". No such attack occurred.
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- ^Nuclear Terrorism: Frequently Asked Questions, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, September 26, 2007
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- ^ abcdNicholas D. Kristof. A Nuclear 9/11The New York Times, March 10, 2004.
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There are few scarier pairs of words: “nuclear,” evoking the great 20th century fear of atomic annihilation, and “terrorism,” the bogeyman of the 21st. Put them together and you’ve got a frightening specter. Since European authorities revealed that the group behind the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks was also spying on a senior nuclear official in Belgium, many news sources have reported that the threat of “nuclear terrorism” is upon us.
But what does that actually mean? The news stories don’t always say, and sometimes they fail to distinguish among events that would look completely different from one another, if they ever came to pass. In fact, “nuclear terrorism” can refer to several possible occurrences, all of which are best avoided. But if you’re the glass-half-full type, you may take some solace in knowing that the most dire scenario is also the least probable.
Here is what nuclear terrorism most likely won’t look like: A self-styled Islamic State caliph successfully launching a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead at Washington, incinerating millions of people in a giant mushroom cloud. There are so many technical, financial, military, and logistical barriers that it would be extremely unlikely that even the most dogged, nuclear-obsessed extremist group could make that happen.
But just because nuclear terrorism won’t look like a Cold War nightmare come to life doesn’t mean we should rest easy. In a March 2016 report, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs laid out three potential types of “nuclear or radiological terrorism.” One possibility—the hardest to achieve, but by far the most devastating if it were to occur—is that terrorists will acquire or build and then detonate a nuclear bomb in a major city. A second possibility is that they will set off a “dirty bomb,” a weapon made of radioactive material attached to conventional explosives, sometimes referred to as a radiological dispersal device or RDD. Executing this scenario would be so easy that many experts are surprised it hasn’t happened already. A third possibility, which the Belfer Center estimates would fall somewhere between the other two in terms of severity and likelihood, is that terrorists will sabotage a nuclear facility, releasing radioactive material over a wide area.
Least likely: a nuclear weapon. The reason the first scenario is improbable is that it’s difficult to steal, buy, or make a nuclear weapon. While there are about 10,000 nuclear warheads in the world, most are heavily guarded and don’t lie around fully assembled. To steal one would require the cooperation of more than just one corrupt or coerced person.
Some policy analysts do worry that terrorists might be able to buy an atomic weapon from a nuclear power hostile to Western interests, perhaps North Korea or Pakistan. In 2013, though, political scientists Keir A. Lieber of Georgetown University and Daryl Press of Dartmouth College published one of the few papers to rigorously examine that likelihood and found the fear overblown. As they write, “a terrorist nuclear strike would not remain anonymous for long and would soon be traced back to the originating state.” Few national leaders are crazy or naïve enough to think they wouldn’t be found out, or that if they were, there wouldn’t be massive repercussions.
As for building an atomic weapon, it’s unlikely that terrorists could make anything as sophisticated as the warheads owned by governments, but making a crude nuclear bomb—an improvised nuclear device, or IND—is “potentially within the capabilities of a technically sophisticated terrorist group,” according to the Belfer Center report. However, in addition to equipment and know-how, the atom-bomb-seeking terrorist would need—the largest obstacle—some quantity of either plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU). Highly enriched uranium is present in fewer than 25 countries, according to a new report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Even Al Qaeda, which in the 1990s and early 2000s had deep pockets, a centralized command structure, and many scientists in its employ, was not able to acquire material suitable for a nuclear weapon despite its best efforts. There have been reports of attempts to sell nuclear material in countries in the Black Sea area, but none has been successful, as far as has been made publicly known.
Most likely: a dirty bomb. None of this is to suggest that the international community shouldn’t worry about the world’s nuclear arsenals; we would all be unequivocally safer if there were fewer atomic weapons and less nuclear-weapon-ready material around. But we’re far more likely to see the second scenario—a dirty bomb attack—than a nuclear explosion in the near future.
So what will that look like? Nothing like the aftermath of a nuclear weapon attack. As the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission explains, “A dirty bomb is in no way similar to a nuclear weapon.” The latter relies on fission or fusion to create an explosion millions of times more powerful than the former. A nuclear bomb could spread radiation over hundreds of square miles, whereas a dirty bomb could only do so over a few square miles. Dirty bombs have more in common with nuclear medicine than nuclear war.
A dirty bomb wouldn’t immediately kill any more people than an ordinary explosive. It is a weapon ideally suited to terrorism, though, part of the very purpose of which is to sow fear. In fact, in the perverse psychology of terrorism, a mere claim that a bomb had spread radioactive material would have some of the same effect as a bomb that actually did so.
That said, getting hold of the sort radioactive material needed to make a dirty bomb isn’t difficult; it has occasionally even been stolen by accident. Literally thousands of sites, in more than 100 countries, contain the kind of sources required, which have many uses in agriculture, industry, and medicine. Radioactive isotopes are commonly used, for example, to irradiate blood before transfusions and treat cancer tumors.
One reason governments worry about dirty bombs, even though the stakes are relatively low and none has ever been detonated, is that the materials needed to make them are so obviously in circulation, and apparently in demand. The International Atomic Energy Agency tracks radioactive material that governments discover to have been lost, stolen, or otherwise “outside of regulatory control.” The most recent fact sheet from the agency’s Incident and Trafficking Database reports 2,734 incidents between 1993 and 2014. (Only 49 involved HEU or plutonium.) The fact sheet also shows there has been a steady increase in annual incidents of theft and loss since the late 1990s. And because the IAEA fact sheet is based on voluntary reporting by governments reluctant to embarrass themselves or disclose sensitive information, it can be presumed to represent just the tip of the iceberg. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, which also tracks incidents, counted 325 instances of radioactive material being outside of regulatory control in 2013 and 2014.
So what would happen if this stuff gets spewed around a city? The answer depends on many factors. To the untrained eye, the immediate aftermath of a dirty bomb explosion wouldn’t look much different than the aftermath of an attack perpetrated with regular explosives, like the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, the Paris attacks in November 2015, or more recent terrorist bombings in Istanbul, Jakarta, Brussels, and Lahore. Law enforcement authorities would sweep for radioactive material right away, but depending on the isotopes used, the amount of smoke and debris in the air, and proximity to the blast, a member of the public might, for lack of visual evidence, have no idea that radioactive material was involved until an announcement was made.
Once the public knew the bomb was radioactive, it would be hard to stop fear and chaos from escalating. Authorities would have to decide whether to let people flee, which could reduce their radiation exposure and begin an evacuation, but might also spread radiation through the city and let perpetrators escape.
So many variables would be involved in a possible dirty bomb attack that it’s hard to definitively predict an outcome. The IAEA divides radioactive materials into five categories, from Category 1, which is so harmful that exposure for only a few minutes to an unshielded source may be fatal, to Category 5, which poses a relatively low hazard. But Category 5 materials—such as the americium-241 found in lightning detectors or the strontium-90 used in brachytherapy cancer treatment—are more readily available, and if enough are brought together in one place, they can add up to a harmful dose. An early task for first responders would be to figure out what kind of radioactive material was used.
Then there’s fear of the big C. Radioactive isotopes are associated with an increase in various cancers, but by how much and over what time period isn’t perfectly known. A great deal depends on the concentration to which a person was exposed. Much of what scientists have learned about radiation-caused cancer comes from studying the aftereffects of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Various cities and government agencies, including the US Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have produced studies and briefings on how to respond to a dirty bomb attack, and many of these focus on the costs of evacuation and decontamination. “A radioactive dirty bomb would not cause catastrophic levels of death and injury,” the Nuclear Threat Initiative report says, “but depending on its chemistry, form, and location, it could leave billions of dollars of damage due to the costs of evacuation, relocation, and cleanup … Buildings could have to be demolished and the debris removed. Access to a contaminated area could be denied for years as a site is cleaned up well enough to meet even minimum environmental guidelines for protecting the public.” Businesses would close, shipping would halt, wages would be lost. This kind of upheaval has earned dirty bombs the moniker “weapons of mass disruption.”
It could happen: sabotage. It may be that the Brussels terrorists who spied on the nuclear official were aiming for option three, wreaking havoc by damaging a nuclear power plant. It’s hard to say how close they might have come. Belgium experienced a major incident of sabotage at its Doel-4 nuclear power reactor in 2014, when someone opened a valve and allowed lubricant to escape so that the turbine overheated and destroyed itself. No radioactive material was released, but the cost of the damage was estimated at between $100 and $200 million. As authorities investigated, they also happened to discover that a former contractor at the plant had left to fight for terrorists in Syria. (The jihadi contractor wasn’t responsible for the valve incident.) Needless to say, Belgium has since tightened security at its nuclear power plants, but at least as of March 2016, security elsewhere remained lax. “Some countries have no armed guards at all at nuclear facilities, relying on offsite response forces some distance away; others have no background checks before allowing employees access to reactor vital areas or nuclear security systems,” the Belfer Center report says.
As with a dirty bomb attack, results of an attack on a nuclear facility could vary wildly depending on many factors. The immediate death toll wouldn’t necessarily go beyond whatever was caused by the explosive itself. But the fear factor, long-term health effects, and economic consequences could be significant.