Scenarios Of Nuclear Terrorism: An Analysis


Nuclear weapons are inherently terrifying due to their lethality. In recent years some of the terrorist organizations have been observed in hot pursuit of nuclear related material, chemical and biological agents. The threat of nuclear terrorism may come in the form of terrorist organizations acquiring nuclear weapons from the black market or stealing uranium from vulnerable nuclear facilities and building an improvised nuclear device on their own. Terrorist organizations and rogue individuals have tried to acquire and use biological weapons or toxin agents to cause mass destruction and devastation in the past.

In addition, as the anthrax letter attacks of autumn 2001 clearly demonstrated, even small scale attacks of limited lethality can elicit a disproportionate amount of terror and social disruption. The threats of nuclear terrorism can come in the form of attacking a nuclear power reactor; stealing fissile material from a nuclear power reactor; and making dirty bombs using the stolen fissile material. These threats could be emanated from terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, Aum Shinrikyo, Hizbul Tehreer and other organizations like the Chechen guerrilla groups.

a) Attacking a Nuclear Power Reactor

Terrorists may have the potential interest of attacking a commercial nuclear power plant with either a commercial jet or heavy munitions. Such an attack may result in the same effects of a radiological bomb. The attack may cause the meltdown of the reactor core, or the spreading of the spent fuel waste on the site, such an occurrence would result in mass casualties. In such a scenario, the source of the radiological contamination would be the power plant, and the explosive mechanism for the spreading of radiation over large areas would be the plane or armament. On the other hand a political extremist group may overpower the security guards of a nuclear power plant and take control of the facility. In the few hours they may get inside, the terrorists may assemble an atomic bomb using nuclear material from the reactor. They now threaten to detonate their weapon unless their demands are met. Detonation of their weapon would cause extensive damage to the reactor and would spread deadly radioactive particles over a wide area.

b) Stealing Fissile Material

Stealing fissile material would perhaps be the best way for a terrorist organization to get its hands on the material and build an improvised nuclear device. The attack on the Pelindaba nuclear facility in South Africa on the night of November 8, 2007 is perhaps the latest example of how easy it is for terrorists to infiltrate the security at nuclear facilities and steal fissile material, which could be used to build an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND). Although the Pelindaba attack became an unsuccessful attempt it has given the world an example of the weak security placed at nuclear facilities. The threat from Radiological Dispersion Dims/Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDD) in comparison to the possibility that terrorists could build or obtain an actual atomic bomb is also a high concern for the world.

An explosion of even low yield could kill hundreds of thousands of people. A relatively small bomb, say 15-kilotons, detonated in Manhattan (USA) could immediately kill upwards of 100,000 inhabitants, followed by a comparable number of deaths in the lingering aftermath. Fortunately, bomb-grade nuclear fissile material (highly enriched uranium or plutonium) is relatively heavily guarded in most, if not all, nuclear weapon states. In spite of this, the possibility of diversion remains as a large amount of fissile material presently exists around the world. Talented and expert terrorists could without any effective hindrance design and construct a workable atomic/radiological bomb, once they manage to have an access to the lethal ingredients which are necessary (the Hiroshima bomb, which used a simple gun-barrel design, is the prime example).

c) Dirty Bombs

It is presumed that he accessible nuclear device for any terrorist would be a radiological dispersion bomb which is also commonly known as a dirty bomb. A dirty bomb would consist of waste by products from nuclear reactors wrapped in conventional explosives, which would spew deadly radioactive particles into the environment, upon detonation. This is an advantageous weapon, in which radioactive waste material is relatively easy to obtain. Radioactive waste is widely found throughout the world, and in general is not as well guarded as actual nuclear weapons. No great sophistication is needed to design, build and deliver a dirty bomb. Depending upon the amount of explosives, considerable localized damage could be caused, and an extensive area could be rendered inaccessible for an extended period, or require extremely expensive clean up. In the United States, radioactive waste is located at more than 70 commercial nuclear power sites, in 31 states. Enormous quantities also exist overseas in Europe and Japan in particular. Tons of wastes are transported to long distances, including between continents (Japan to Europe and back). Especially in Russia, security for nuclear waste is especially poor and the potential for diversion and actual use by radicals has been shown to be very real indeed. In 1996, Islamic rebels from the breakaway province of Chechnya planted, but did not detonate, such a device in Moscow’s Izmailovo Park to demonstrate Russia’s vulnerability.

This dirty bomb consisted of a deadly brew of dynamite and one of the highly radioactive products of nuclear fission Cesium 137. Extreme versions of gamma-ray emitting bombs, such as a dynamite-laden casket of spent fuel from a nuclear power plant, would not kill quite as many people as died on September 9/11. A worst case calculation for an explosion in downtown Manhattan during noontime caused: more than 2,000 deaths and many thousands became victim of suffering from radiation poisoning. Treatment of those exposed would greatly hampered by inadequate medical facilities and training.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which tracks trafficking of nuclear material, has registered 336 cases of unauthorized possession of nuclear or radiological material between 1992 and 2008. There is only some solace in the fact that just 15 of those cases involved highly enriched uranium or plutonium material suitable for a nuclear weapon.

A dirty bomb would not be nearly as destructive as even the smallest nuclear weapon, but by spreading radioactive material, it could cause mass panic and disruption. A credible threat to explode such a bomb in a city could have a powerful impact on the conduct of that state’s foreign and military policy, and could possibly have a paralyzing effect. Not only would the potential loss of life be considerable, but also the prospect of mass evacuation of dense urban centres would loom large in the minds of policy makers.

d) Acquire a Ready-Made Nuclear Weapon

Terrorist may acquire a ready made nuclear weapon from a sympathizer or a rouge state or take over a nuclear armed submarine, plane or base. Among the more harrowing scenarios would be if terrorists obtain a complete nuclear weapon, possibly from Russia, where lax controls, especially in the 1990s, made such a prospect plausible. Even today, experts wonder whether insiders in the Russian system could have slipped across the porous borders to ex-Soviet neighbouring states with a nuclear weapon destined for the black market.

This scenario seems to be difficult one but there are concerns about this due to the potential demand of nuclear weapons by the terrorist organizations. Some of the Western concerns are also highlighting Pakistan as a potential state which may provide a ready made nuclear device to the terrorists. This conspiracy has been built after the A.Q. Khan Network episode that an inside sympathizer might assist a religiously motivated terrorist group for acquiring a ready made nuke. This notion is not negligible in case of third world states possessing nuclear technologies without precautionary safety measures.

e) Building a Nuclear Weapon

Experts are of the view that a technically competent terrorist can build a crude nuclear bomb using highly enriched uranium, presumably bought on the black market, on a budget of less than $10 million. A gun-assembled weapon, which, like the Hiroshima bomb, uses an initial charge to bring two fissionable masses together rapidly, could be transported in the back of a van or small truck to use in a terrorist attack on a major city. Some of the experts also claim that “in fact, it is perhaps easier to make a gun assembled nuclear bomb than it is to develop biological or chemical weapons,” That is not to say such a scenario is likely. A terrorist group would have to do many of the same things (though technological progress would make some steps easier) all while attempting to hide from law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Michael Levi, a fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations, writes about the terrorist-constructed nuke scenario. “The technology for developing the needed attribution capability exists but has to be assembled.” He is also of the view that “this doesn’t mean that terrorists can not build a gun-type bomb, but it suggests that their chances of failure are not negligible.” It is widely acknowledged that the highest hurdle for any nation or sub-national group seeking to build a nuclear weapon is obtaining the fissile materials needed to do so. There are enormous quantities of such material present in the world but only a football sized amount of the material, weighing perhaps 20 pounds or so, would be sufficient for this purpose. The Non-proliferation Policy Education Center estimates that there may be as much as 20 tons of “surplus” plutonium and 500 tons of “surplus” HEU present in the former Soviet Union alone.

There are considerable concerns that Osama bin Laden could have obtained such materials from sympathizers within the Pakistani nuclear, intelligence, and/or military establishments, or from rogue elements of the Russian military or organized criminal elements in the FSU. The remaining materials required to construct a bomb are readily obtainable. Indeed, according to Theodore Taylor, once one of the leading nuclear scientists in the United States, a knowledgeable nuclear scientist could do so with materials that could be purchased at a hardware store. Such a bomb would likely have an unpredictable yield. But even a so-called “fizzle yield” bomb (that is, a bomb packing the power of about 1,000 tons of TNT) would be powerful enough to level several city blocks and disperse radiation over a large area.

The above discussion reveals that it is essential to bear in mind that acquiring nuclear technology is becoming increasingly a matter of political will rather than technological capability. That is why it is the presumption that the threats of nuclear terrorism have become the apparently terrifying. For the terrorist groups willing to commit acts of terrorism at larger scale of radioactive materials of contamination, either through a contamination bomb or otherwise, has been the preferred option for nuclear terrorism.

Muhammad Jawad Hashmi

Mr. MJ Hashmi is M.Phil in Defence and Strategic Studies. He is an Author of a book entitled as “Nuclear Terrorism in Pakistan: Myth of Reality?” His Area of interest is Nuclear Terrorism, Nuclear Safety and Security issues in Pakistan, Arms Control and Disarmament, Nuclear Non-Proliferation. He can be reached at [email protected]

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