Risk of nuclear terrorism is real and high now
Bunn et al 14 [Matthew, Professor of Practice at the Harvard Kennedy School, with Martin Malin, Executive Director of the Project on Managing the Atom at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Nickolas Roth, Research Associate at the Project on Managing the Atom, and William Tobey, Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, March, “Advancing Nuclear Security: Evaluating Progress and Setting New Goals,” The Project on Managing the Atom, pg. 5-9]
Unfortunately, nuclear and radiological terrorism remain real and dangerous threats.1 The conclusion the assembled leaders reached at the Washington Nuclear Security Summit and reaffirmed in Seoul remains correct: “Nuclear terrorism continues to be one of the most challenging threats to international security. Defeating this threat requires strong national measures and international cooperation given its potential global political, economic, social, and psychological consequences.”2
There are three types of nuclear or radiological terrorist attack:
• Nuclear weapons. Terrorists might be able to get and detonate an assembled nuclear weapon made by a state, or make a crude nuclear bomb from stolen separated plutonium or HEU. This would be the most difficult type of nuclear terrorism for terrorists to accomplish—but the devastation could be absolutely horrifying, with political and economic aftershocks reverberating around the world.
• “Dirty bombs.” A far simpler approach would be for terrorists to obtain radiological materials—available in hospitals, industrial sites, and more—and disperse them to contaminate an area with radioactivity, using explosives or any number of other means. In most scenarios of such attacks, few people would die from the radiation—but the attack could spread fear, force the evacuation of many blocks of a major city, and inflict billions of dollars in costs of cleanup and economic disruption. While a dirty bomb attack would be much easier for terrorists to carry out than an attack using a nuclear explosive, the consequences would be far less—an expensive and disruptive mess, but not the heart of a major city going up in smoke.
• Nuclear sabotage. Terrorists could potentially cause a Fukushima-like meltdown at a nuclear reactor or sabotage a spent fuel pool or high-level waste store. An unsuccessful sabotage would have little effect, but a successful one could spread radioactive material over a huge area. Both the scale of the consequences and the difficulty of carrying out a successful attack would be intermediate between nuclear weapons and dirty bombs.
Overall, while actual terrorist use of a nuclear weapon may be the least likely of these dangers, its consequences would be so overwhelming that we believe it poses the most significant risk. A similar judgment drove the decision to focus the four-year effort on securing nuclear weapons and the materials needed to make them. Most of this report will focus on the threat of terrorist use of nuclear explosives, but the overall global governance framework for nuclear security is relevant to all of these dangers.
The danger of nuclear terrorism is driven by three key factors—terrorist intent to escalate to the nuclear level of violence; potential terrorist capability to do so; and the vulnerability of nuclear weapons and the materials needed to enable terrorists to carry out such an attack—the motive, means, and opportunity of a monstrous crime.
Terrorist intent. While most terrorist groups are still focused on small-scale violence for local political purposes, we now live in an age that includes some groups intent on inflicting large-scale destruction to achieve their objectives. Over the past quarter century, both al Qaeda and the Japanese terror cult Aum Shinrikyo seriously sought nuclear weapons and the nuclear materials and expertise needed to make them. Al Qaeda had a focused program reporting directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri (now head of the group), which progressed as far as carrying out crude but sensible conventional explosive tests for the nuclear program in the desert of Afghanistan. There is some evidence that North Caucusus terrorists also sought nuclear weapons—including incidents in which terrorist teams were caught carrying out reconnaissance on Russian nuclear weapon storage sites, whose locations are secret.3
Despite the death of Osama bin Laden and the severe disruption of the core of al Qaeda, there are no grounds for complacency. There is every reason to believe Zawahiri remains eager to inflict destruction on a nuclear scale. Indeed, despite the large number of al Qaeda leaders who have been killed or captured, nearly all of the key players in al Qaeda’s nuclear program remain alive and at large—including Abdel Aziz al-Masri, an Egyptian explosives expert who was al Qaeda’s “nuclear CEO.” In 2003, when al Qaeda operatives were negotiating to buy three of what they thought were nuclear weapons, senior al Qaeda officials told them to go ahead and make the purchase if a Pakistani expert with equipment confirmed the items were genuine. The US government has never managed to determine who the Pakistani nuclear weapons expert was in whom al Qaeda had such confidence—and what he may have been doing in the intervening decade.
More fundamentally, with at least two, and probably three, groups having gone down this path in the past 25 years, there is no reason to expect they will be the last. The danger of nuclear terrorism will remain as long as nuclear weapons, the materials needed to make them, and terrorist groups bent on large-scale destruction co-exist.
Potential terrorist capabilities. No one knows what capabilities a secret cell of al Qaeda may have managed to retain or build. Unfortunately, it does not take a Manhattan Project to make a nuclear bomb—indeed, over 90 percent of the Manhattan Project effort was focused on making the nuclear materials, not on designing and building the weapons. Numerous studies by the United States and other governments have concluded that it is plausible that a sophisticated terrorist group could make a crude nuclear bomb if it got enough separated plutonium or HEU.4 A “gun-type” bomb, such as the weapon that obliterated Hiroshima, fundamentally involves slamming two pieces of HEU together at high speed. An “implosion-type” bomb, which is needed to get a sub-stantial explosive yield from plutonium, requires crushing nuclear material to a higher density—a more complex task, but still plausible for terrorists, especially if they got knowledgeable help.
Many analysts argue that, since states spend billions of dollars and assign hundreds or thousands of people to building nuclear weapons, it is totally implausible that terrorists could carry out this task. Unfortunately, this argument is wrong, for two reasons. First, as the Manhattan Project statistic suggests, the difficult part of making a nuclear bomb is making the nuclear material. That is what states spend billions seeking to accomplish. Terrorists are highly unlikely to ever be able to make their own bomb material—but if they could get stolen material, that step would be bypassed. Second, it is far easier to make a crude, unsafe, unreliable bomb of uncertain yield, which might be delivered in the back of a truck, than to make the kind of nuclear weapon a state would want in its arsenal—a safe, reliable weapon of known yield that can be delivered by missile or combat aircraft. It is highly unlikely terrorists will ever be able to build that kind of nuclear weapon.
Remaining vulnerabilities. While many countries have done a great deal to strengthen nuclear security, serious vulnerabilities remain. Around the world, there are stocks of nuclear weapons or materials whose security systems are not sufficient to protect against the full range of plausible outsider and insider threats they may face. As incidents like the intrusion at Y-12 in the United States in 2012 make clear, many nuclear facilities and transporters still grapple with serious problems of security culture. It is fair to say that every country where nuclear weapons, weapons-usable nuclear materials, major nuclear facilities, or dangerous radiological sources exist has more to do to ensure that these items are sustainably secured and accounted for.
At least three lines of evidence confirm that important nuclear security weaknesses continue to exist. First, seizures of stolen HEU and separated plutonium continue to occur, including, mostly recently HEU seizures in 2003, 2006, 2010, and 2011.5 These seizures may result from material stolen long ago, but, at a minimum, they make clear that stocks of HEU and plutonium remain outside of regulatory control. Second, in cases where countries do realistic tests to probe whether security systems can protect against teams of clever adversaries determined to find a weak point, the adversaries sometimes succeed—even when their capabilities are within the set of threats the security system is designed to protect against. This happens with some regularity in the United States (though less often than before the 9/11 attacks); if more countries carried out comparable performance tests, one would likely see similar results. Third, in real non-nuclear thefts and terrorist attacks around the world, adversaries sometimes demonstrate capabilities and tactics well beyond what many nuclear security systems would likely be able to handle (see the discussion of the recent Västberga incident in Sweden).
Of course, the initial theft of nuclear material would be only the first step. Adversaries would have to smuggle the material to wherever they wanted to make their bomb, and ultimately to the target. A variety of measures have been put in place in recent years to try to stop nuclear smuggling, from radiation detectors to national teams trained and equipped to deal with nuclear smuggling cases—and more should certainly be done. But once nuclear material has left the facility where it is supposed to be, it could be anywhere, and finding and recovering it poses an enormous challenge. The immense length of national borders, the huge scale of legitimate traffic, the myriad potential pathways across these borders, and the small size and weak radiation signal of the materials needed to make a nuclear bomb make nuclear smuggling extraordinarily difficult to stop.
There is also the danger that a state such as North Korea might consciously decide to provide nuclear weapons or the materials needed to make them to terrorists. This possibility cannot be ruled out, but there is strong reason to believe that such conscious state decisions to provide these capabilities are a small part of the overall risk of nuclear terrorism. Dictators determined to maintain their power are highly unlikely to hand over the greatest weapon they have to terrorist groups they cannot control, who might well use it in ways that would provoke retaliation that would remove the dictator from power forever. Although nuclear forensics is by no means perfect, it would be only one of many lines of evidence that could potentially point back to the state that provided the materials; no state could ever be confident they could make such a transfer withoutbeing caught.6 And terrorists are unlikely to have enough money to make a substantial difference in either the odds of regime survival or the wealth of a regime’s elites, even in North Korea, one of the poorest countries on earth. On the other hand, serious risks would arise in North Korea, or other nuclear-armed states, in the event of state collapse—and as North Korea’s stockpile grows, one could imagine a general managing some of that stockpile concluding he could sell a piece of it and provide a golden parachute for himself and his family without getting caught.
No one knows the real likelihood of nuclear terrorism. But the consequences of a terrorist nuclear blast would be so catastrophic that even a small chance is enough to justify urgent action to reduce the risk. The heart of a major city could be reduced to a smoldering radioactive ruin, leaving tens to hundreds of thousands of people dead. The perpetrators or others might claim to have more weapons already hidden in other major cities and threaten to set them off if their demands were not met—potentially provoking uncontrolled evacuation of many urban centers. Devastating economic consequences would reverberate worldwide. Kofi Annan, while serving as Secretary-General of the United Nations, warned that the global economic effects of a nuclear terrorist attack in a major city would push “tens of millions of people into dire poverty,” creating a “second death toll throughout the developing world.”7