Nuclear Terrorism: How It Can Be Prevented

The recent furor over an unsuccessful terrorist attempt to blow up an airliner is distracting us from considering the possibility of a vastly more destructive terrorist act: exploding a nuclear weapon in a heavily-populated area.

Such a disaster — which would kill hundreds of thousands of people — is not a remote possibility at all.  Although terrorist groups do not have the fissile material (that is, material capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction) necessary to build nuclear weapons on their own, they have been trying to obtain such weapons, either by purchase or theft, for decades.  According to the U.S. government, Osama bin Laden sought to acquire nuclear weapons at least since 1992.  Not only have there been dozens of thefts and sales of fissile material to potential terrorists (all of whom were supposedly arrested), but a significant number of nuclear weapons have been “lost” by nuclear-armed nations.  In addition, if either nuclear weapons or fissile material were available to overseas terrorists, it would not be very difficult to smuggle them into the United States.

In 2004, when Graham Allison — founding dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a former top Pentagon official — published his classic study, Nuclear Terrorism:  The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe , he argued that if governments continued their past policies, a nuclear terrorist attack was inevitable.  The problem, as he saw it, reflected a combination of terrorist activity, the ease of smuggling weapons across U.S. borders, and the accessibility of nuclear weapons and fissile materials.

Unfortunately, not much has changed since that time.  Terrorism, of course, shows no sign of disappearing.  Even if the “war on terror” produced a significant decline in terrorism (which it shows no sign of doing) and even if proper intelligence and police work reduced the number of terrorist activities, some terrorist acts almost certainly would continue, as they have for centuries.  Furthermore, as we have seen in the case of immigration, securing U.S. borders is not an easy task, and perfect security seems unlikely to be obtained.

But what about the third leg of the problem:  the accessibility of nuclear weapons and fissile materials?  Not much has been done about this.  But a lot could be done.

Allison focused particularly on securing fissile material.  As he put it:  “No fissile material, no nuclear explosion, no nuclear terrorism.  It is that simple.”  He explained:  “There is a vast — but not unlimited — amount of it in the world, and it is within our power to keep it secure.”  Actually, in recent years there has been a tightening up of governmental controls over fissile material.  Also, there has been significant interest by the U.S. government and others in negotiating a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, which would ban the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons.  During the 2008 presidential campaign, both Barack Obama and John McCain endorsed such a treaty, and since then both have spoken out in favor of it.

Then, of course, there is the possibility of eliminating the vast stockpiles of nuclear weapons accumulated by nine nations.  At the moment, there are some 23,000 nuclear weapons in existence (mostly in Russia and the United States) — ripe pickings for any would-be mass murderer.  Any significant reduction in their number would significantly reduce the opportunities for nuclear terrorism.  And their elimination would wipe out these opportunities entirely.  To draw upon Allison’s phrasing:  no nuclear weapons, no nuclear explosion, no nuclear terrorism.

Of course, there are other good reasons to eliminate nuclear weapons, as well, including the danger of nuclear war.  Doubtless this point will be on the minds of many government officials and citizens alike as the world prepares for the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference this coming May, at the United Nations.  The U.N. conference will consider the treaty pledges of non-nuclear nations to forgo nuclear weapons and the treaty pledges of nuclear nations to divest themselves of these implements of mass destruction.

Even so, the ongoing danger of nuclear terrorism provides yet another reason to rid the world of fissile material and its final, terrible product, nuclear weapons.  Let’s not forget that.

Lawrence S. Wittner

Dr. Wittner is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement (Stanford University Press).

Republished with permission from the History News Network.

LA Progressive


  1. says

    Did you forget something? What a nifty dance around the words Islam and Muslim.

    It’s too bad that the article tries to live like an ostrich by refusing to recognize that if the U.S. is going to be nuked by terrorist, they’re going to be radicalized Muslims, who are eager to obtain Allah’s promises of paradise for murder of infidels, especially if they do it on a suicide mission.
    Not all Muslims are terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslim, and 100% of suicide bombers are. Ever since the late 1990s, the U.S. has been courting suicide itself by failing to recognize the threat and institute Muslim Ideological Profiling (MIP) of all Muslims to screen for the radicalized and set flags for heightened security. If had been doing MIP, there would have been no 9/11 or other Muslim terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and al-Qaida would just be one of innumerable faraway anti-U.S. groups that can only shake its fist at us. Instead, after each attack the U.S. responds by making non-Muslims suffer increased restrictions instead, diluting resources and allowing al-Qaida terrorists to easily slip through, like the Christmas Underwear Bomber.

    The U.S. govt. and people were Islam history ignoramuses before 9/11, but ever since, to remain one is getting more dangerous every day. Take time to study Islam’s hairy history free online with the Historyscoper to understand the true threat of a resurgence of radical Islam. Get started by clicking the url.


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