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Nuclear terrorism denotes the use, or threat of the use, of nuclear weapons or radiological weapons in acts of terrorism, includingattacks against facilities where radioactive materials are present. 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”, according to International conventions.

The notion of terrorist organizations using nuclear weapons (especially very small ones, such as suitcase nukes) has been a threat in American rhetoric and culture. It is plausible that terrorists could acquire a nuclear weapon.


Two of the main dangers associated with nuclear reactors are nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. Terrorism involving nuclear weapons or radioactive materials could take a variety of forms. Terrorists could:
  • Attack a nuclear reactor.
  • Disrupt critical inputs (eg., water supply) for the safe running of a nuclear reactor.
  • Steal nuclear fuel or waste.
  • Acquire fissile material and fabricate a nuclear bomb.
  • Acquire a ready-made nuclear weapon or take over a nuclear-armed submarine, plane or base.


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 massacremarker 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 - 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 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."

Radiological weapons

It is possible for a terrorist group to detonate a radiological or 'dirty bomb'. A 'dirty bomb' is composed of any radioactive source and a conventional explosive. The radioactive material is dispersed by the detonation of the explosive. Detonation of such a weapon is not as powerful as a nuclear blast, but can produce considerable radioactive fallout. There are other radiological weapons called radiological dispersal 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 amongst 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. The economic losses could be enormous - easily reaching into the tens of billions of dollars.

Alleged nuclear terrorism attempts and plans

In June 2002, U.S. citizen Jose 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 November 2006, MI5marker warned that Islamic terrorists, specifically the al-Qaida were planning on using nuclear weapons against cities in the United Kingdom by obtaining the bombs via clandestine means.[24153]

In June 2007, the FBImarker 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.

The Alexander Litvinenko poisoning with radioactive polonium "represents an ominous landmark: the beginning of an era of nuclear terrorism," according to Andrew J. Patterson.

Security specialist Shaun Gregory argued in an article that terrorists have attacked Pakistani nuclear facilities three times in the recent past; twice in 2007 and once in 2008.

Recovering lost weapons & material

In August 2002, the United States launched a program to track and secure enriched uranium from 24 Sovietmarker-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 order to reduce the danger of attacks using nuclear waste material, European Union Commissioner Loyola de Palacio suggested in November 2002 the creation of common standards in the European Union, especially in the new member states operating Soviet-era reactors, for subterranean nuclear waste disposal.

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.

See also



  1. Nuclear Terrorism: Frequently Asked Questions
  2. Nuclear terrorism
  3. Alex Kingsbury, " History's Troubling Lessons", U.S. News and World Report (February 18, 2007).
  4. "Nuclear Terrorism," The Economist (January 25, 1975) p. 38.
  5. Larry Collins, "Combating Nuclear Terrorism," New York Times (December 14, 1980) Sec. 6 pg. 37.
  6. Sally Bedell, "A Realistic Film Stirs NBC Debate," New York Times (March 17, 1983) B13; Sally Bedell, "NBC Nuclear Terror Show Criticized," New York Times (March 22, 1983) C15; Aljean Harmetz, "NBC Film on Terror Wins Prize," New York Times (July 8, 1983) C19.
  7. D. Costello, "Experts Warn on Nuclear Terror," Courier-Mail (June 26, 1986).
  9. "Ushering in the era of nuclear terrorism," by Patterson, Andrew J. MD, PhD, Critical Care Medicine, v. 35, p.953-954, 2007.
  10. Rhys Blakeley, " Terrorists 'have attacked Pakistan nuclear sites three times'," Times Online (August 11, 2009).
  11. Philipp C. Bleek, "Project Vinca: Lessons for Securing Civil Nuclear Material Stockpiles," The Nonproliferation Review (Fall-Winter 2003) p. 1.
  13. Washington Post, December 20, 2007, Op-Ed by Micah Zenko

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