Nuclear terrorism - Myth or a real danger?

The fear of a nuclear weapon in the hands of terrorists is nearly as old as the weapon itself. Already in the early 1950s did Robert Oppenheimer, one of the fathers of the US-American atomic bomb, warn that three to four people could destroy New York should they succeed in smuggling an atomic bomb into the city. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, renewed discussion concerning nuclear terrorism ensued as the safety of thousands of nuclear weapons on the territory of the former Soviet Union was deemed to be insufficient. The terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda in New York and Washington of 9/11 2001 increasingly fuelled fears of nuclear terrorism.

Like his predecessor George W. Bush, US President Barak Obama declared “the single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term, would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon”.

Until today, however, there has been not one terrorist attack with atomic bombs or even nuclear material—one reason why warnings of a ‘nuclear terror’ are highly controversial. Critics consider them to be alarmist and exaggerated. Even the German government, for instance, estimates the danger of terrorists using a so-called dirty bomb to be far greater than that of acquiring nuclear weapons (Schmitt-Roschmann, 2010).

Terrorists and nuclear weapons / nuclear material

There are indications that the international terrorist group al-Qaeda has thought about acquiring nuclear weapons. But it seems unlikely that they have developed real plans (John Mueller, 2010). It is said that Chechen terrorists have been thinking about stealing Russian nuclear weapons. They have also been in possession of nuclear material and threatened to use it in Russia as a dirty bomb. Insofar, there is a certain interest by terrorist groups in nuclear terrorism, but there are some obstacles to this.

Three courses of action for terrorists to get an atomic bomb

The shortest way for terrorists to get their hands on a nuclear bomb would be to steal one. However, nuclear weapons are extremely well protected, for instance by special security codes that would prevent them from being fired even if terrorists had been able to lay their hands on one. Even experts that warn against the danger of nuclear terrorism judge that it is therefore highly unlikely for terrorists to acquire a nuclear weapon (Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (Cambridge USA)/ Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies (Moscow, Russia), 2011).

A second way would be if terrorists bought nuclear weapons from or were given them by governments that own nuclear weapons. But this hypothetical option, too, seems to be highly unlikely, experts say. The transfer of nuclear weapons to terrorist organizations, for instance, would deprive countries of having the final word on the deployment of these weapons even though they would have to expect a counter attack that would destroy their country and political system.

The third way would be for terrorists to acquire the nuclear material and to build an atomic bomb from this. Nuclear weapons need fissile material either from plutonium or highly enriched uranium. Both materials require highly developed technology and production sites—nuclear reprocessing plants or uranium enrichment facilities. It is highly unlikely that terrorist groups would be able to operate such facilities in secret.

The theft of nuclear material, however, might be more conceivable. Presently, there are more than 2,000 tonnes of highly enriched uranium and plutonium worldwide, extracted from spent fuel rods originating from nuclear power plants or decommissioned nuclear weapons. Most of these are owned by the United States and Russia. There are also 100 civilian research reactors in about 30 countries that run with highly enriched uranium. The safety measures there are less strict. Only the nuclear material from a few of these reactors would suffice to make an atomic bomb.

Even if terrorists get their hands on this material, there will still be numerous hurdles to building an actual atomic bomb. Some experts still believe that it is possible, while others criticise the view that nuclear weapons are easy to make. The former research director of the US nuclear weapons laboratory Los Alamos, Stephen M. Younger, for instance, considers terror groups, often spatially isolated with only erratic energy supply and limited tool kits, unable to build a bomb or even an improvised nuclar charge. Technically highly qualified specialists would need special technical devices. The purchase or theft of highly enriched uranium would not remain undetected. The transport of the self-made bomb would be an additional challenge as it weighs about a tonne.

Sabotage of nuclear facilities

The Fukushima nuclear disaster has clearly shown the threat of civilian nuclear facilities by natural events, such a tsunami. Acts of sabotage of nuclear facilities by terrorists are also conceivable. It is reported that al-Qaeda had considered attacking nuclear sites in the United States (Bunn, 2012, p. 32). But they had stopped pursuing this idea given the enforced casing and other safety measures in most US nuclear power plants. However, these safety measures are not optimal in all facilities, neither in the United States nor Russia, so that a theoretical risk of acts of sabotage in less secured facilities remains.

Terror with the ‘dirty bomb’

A "dirty bomb" (also called radiological dispersal device) disperses radioactive material over a certain area by detonating conventional explosives, such as dynamite. In contrast to a nuclear weapon, there is no nuclear chain reaction, which has such catastrophic effects, in a ‘dirty bomb’.

Terrorists could gain access to the material needed for a dirty bomb quite easily. Such material exists in tens of thousands of locations (hospitals, research- and production sites—for instance of fire alarms) in the world. Amongst them, caesium, cobalt and strontium are particularly high in radiation. Plutonium and enriched uranium cannot be used for a dirty bomb as they are highly toxic but not sufficiently high in radiation.

The higher the radioactivity of the material used, the greater the number of victims and the financial damages caused by radioactive contamination. But generally, the conventional explosive of the dirty bomb would cause more casualties than the actual radiation. The US expert Matthew Bunn estimates that the radiation released through the detonation of a dirty bomb would “in the short term cost zero to a handful of human lives, in the long term some hundred additional deaths from cancer”. The financial costs to decontaminate the affected area, however, could be high. The psychological effect, too, must not be underestimated. For this, he and other experts label dirty bombs as ‘weapons of mass disruption rather than weapons of mass destruction’ (NRC Fact sheet).

So far, not one terrorist attack has occurred that used a dirty bomb, which may have to do with the fact that it is hard to acquire and handle the radioactive material, to build such a bomb and the (limited) potential effects of this weapon.

How can the dangers of nuclear terrorism be contained?

There is a variety of steps that can be taken to contain the risk of nuclear terrorism further—however small it might be.

The first steps ought to be a further reduction of nuclear weapons holdings on the one hand and a limited handling of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, in particular. Research reactors, for instance, can also be run with low enriched uranium. In the past few years, 20 countries have already switched to low enriched uranium, thus reducing the risk of theft of the material required to produce an atomic bomb. Finally, safety measures for all existing nuclear weapons, for all military and civilian nuclear facilities—in particular those that work with plutonium or highly enriched uranium—must be increased.

The latter is the aim of numerous countries that got together by invitation of US President Barack Obama in Washington in 2010 and Seoul in 2012 at the ‘nuclear summit’.

Sources and further information:

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