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Nuclear Terrorism FAQ
Rather than stealing nuclear material and making a bomb, could terrorists steal and use an already assembled nuclear weapon?
Possibly. Nuclear weapons are generally better secured than some stocks of HEU and plutonium are. Nevertheless, the United States is spending hundreds of millions of dollars beefing up security for its own nuclear weapons complex sites, and hundreds of millions more helping Russia improve security for its warhead sites.
A stolen nuclear weapon might be very difficult for a terrorist group to detonate. Many nuclear weapons are equipped with electronic locks making it impossible to set off the weapon without putting in the appropriate code or figuring out a way to bypass the lock. Unfortunately, on older Russian tactical nuclear weapons, such locks are thought to be absent in some cases and relatively easily bypassed in others. U.S. strategic nuclear weapons also do not incorporate such locks, and some other countries' weapons may also lack them. In addition, modern nuclear weapons are typically equipped with devices that prevent the weapon from going off until it has passed through its expected flight sequence ¿ such as a period of rocket-powered flight followed by coasting through space and reentering the atmosphere, in the case of a long-range ballistic missile. While designed more for safety than security, these devices would also make it more difficult to detonate most stolen weapons. If terrorists could not figure out how to detonate a stolen weapon, they might choose to cut it open and use the nuclear material inside to try to make a bomb of their own.
Are there "suitcase nukes" on the loose?
Probably not. In the 1990s, Gen. Alexander Lebed, then the national security advisor to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, said that more than 100 nuclear weapons designed to be carried by one person ¿ so-called "suitcase nukes" ¿ could not be accounted for and might be missing. The Russian Ministry of Defense firmly denied that any weapons were missing, and Lebed ultimately backed off from his initial statements. Ultimately enough information was released to make a reasonably convincing case that none of these man-portable nuclear weapons were missing. It is clear, however, that both the United States and the Soviet Union did in fact manufacture nuclear weapons designed to be carried and used by one or two people. In the United States, all such weapons have been dismantled, and some Russian statements indicate that the same is now true in Russia.
Once a nuclear bomb or nuclear material has been stolen, could we stop it from being smuggled?
The chances would not be very good, unfortunately. The amounts of HEU or plutonium needed for a bomb are small and easy to smuggle. These materials are not radioactive enough to require any special equipment to carry them, or to make them easy to detect. After they have left the site where they are supposed to be, they could be anywhere, and all the later lines of defense are variations on searching for needles in haystacks. With hundreds of millions of people and vehicles crossing U.S. borders every year, making sure no one gets in with a suitcase of potential bomb material is an immense challenge. Even if governments screened every container coming across their borders with a radiation detector, terrorists would not be likely to send their nuclear bomb material through one of the readily-observable radiation detectors, but would use one of the many other possible routes to avoid inspection. Moreover, if HEU was shielded with lead, detectors now being deployed would not be able to detect the weak radiation it emits (unless it was contaminated with the isotope U-232, and the detector was designed to look for the gamma rays from that decay chain). If the United States cannot stop the flow of illegal drugs and illegal immigrants across its borders, it is unlikely that it will succeed in stopping nuclear material. Even an assembled nuclear bomb might fit in the hold of a yacht, in a truck, or in a small plane.
What would happen if terrorists set off a nuclear bomb in a major city?
Terrorist use of a nuclear bomb would be an historic catastrophe. If a crude nuclear bomb with an explosive equivalent of 10,000 tons of TNT (10 "kilotons" in the language of nuclear weapons) were set off at Grand Central Station on a typical work-day, some 500,000 people might be killed, and hundreds of thousands more would be injured, burned, and irradiated. The direct economic damage would likely be in the range of $1 trillion, and the reverberating economic effects throughout the United States and the world would come to several times that figure. In 2005, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that such an attack "would stagger the world economy and thrust tens of millions of people into dire poverty," causing "a second death toll throughout the developing world." The terrorists would surely claim they had more bombs already hidden in U.S. cities, potentially provoking widespread panic and economic disruption. In short, America and the world would be changed forever.
What terrorist groups are known to be seeking nuclear weapons? What do we know about their attempts?
Al Qaeda has been seeking nuclear weapons and the material needed to make them for more than a decade. Osama bin Laden and his followers have repeatedly attempted to acquire stolen nuclear material and to recruit nuclear expertise. In 2001, for example, bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri met at length with two senior Pakistani nuclear scientists and discussed nuclear weapons. As early as 1993, al Qaeda attempted to purchase what it believed was HEU in the Sudan. In the 1990s, the Japanese terror cult Aum Shinrikyo, which launched the nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway, also attempted to get nuclear weapons. Russian officials have confirmed that Chechen terrorist teams have carried out reconnaissance at Russian nuclear warhead storage sites, and in 2005, the Russian Minister of the Interior warned that Russia had intelligence that Chechen groups were planning "attacks against nuclear and power industry installation" intended to "seize nuclear materials and use them to build weapons of mass destruction." Some Chechen factions are closely linked to al Qaeda.
Has any terrorist group succeeded in acquiring nuclear material?