Difficulties For Terrorists To Fabricate Nuclear RDD/IND Weapons – Analysis


It could be guessed that the interest by terrorists in manufacturing a nuclear weapon of an IND (Improvised Nuclear Device) is a challenging task for them based on the expertise and technological support. It is quite clear that even if terrorists get the fissile material and blueprints, the making of an IND (Improvised Nuclear Device) would be a demanding technical task.

Although the obstacles to manufacturing a gun-type IND are clearly smaller than those for an implosion-type, they must not be neglected. To make the uranium parts of the IND (Improvised Nuclear Device), metallurgical experts and equipment are required. The following are some of the practical obstacles they would have to overcome:

  • Uranium ignites spontaneously in the air at 150-175° C;
  • Uranium is chemically toxic and radioactive. Highly enriched uranium exhibits more than 100 times as many disintegrations per time unit as natural uranium;
  • When cooling down from its melting point (at 1132.2° C) to room temperature, uranium undergoes two phase transitions. The density thereby increases by more than 8.5%. A change of 8.5% in density results in a change of approximately 18% in the critical mass;
  • It is not possible to check whether or not the two subcritical masses fit together;
  • Reflector materials and isostatic presses suitable to form reflectors are subject to export controls.

When discussing a stolen nuclear weapon or buying or self manufactured one by terrorists’ organization, it is clear that these are difficult to operate if not impossible. Nuclear weapons are located at well protected and guarded weapons emplacements or in nuclear weapon storage facilities. So in such a situation a theft of nuclear weapon would involve many risks and great efforts in terms of personnel, finance and organization.

It is a fact that this kind of theft is inconceivable without the support of insiders and local knowledge. This kind of theft has not been witnessed so far any where in the world. Several types of safety and security systems exist around a nuclear facility, so that under any circumstances, no unwanted nuclear explosion takes place. These are some of them:

  • Inertial switches and acceleration sensors allow priming only after a threshold level has been reached;
  • Certain types require a high energy electrical impulse;
  • Environmental sensing devices monitor the trajectory and switch on only at a distinct ratio of the longitudinal to lateral acceleration;
  • A barometric switch activates the electric circuit only at a distinct height above ground;
  • A so-called permissive-action link (PAL) is needed, consisting for instance of several number codes with up to 12 digits and allowing a limited number of tries. The code has to be entered by more than a person, i.e. each person concerned knows only part of the entire code.

Many believe that these threats of nuclear terrorism are inflated and have been overstated because technical hurdles still prevent terrorists from acquiring or building a nuclear device.

Brain McNair argues that the threats of nuclear terrorism have been exaggerated by the world. As the matter stands today, the possibility of nuclear terrorism remains more a fantasy than fact. Furthermore, Shireen Mazari argues that Nuclear weapons would not be a weapon of choice for terrorists. Instead, she claims that “terrorists already have access to enough destructive capabilities with in conventional means, so their need for nuclear weapons is simply not there.”

Analysts have endorsed the assessment that the threat of nuclear action by terrorists appears to be exaggerated. Similarly, religious cults and left-wing terrorists with their beliefs of certain prohibitions against mass murder are less likely by many estimates to use WMDs in a terrorist activity, even though there is not any guarantee that terrorists will use WMDs.

It has also been witnessed that no terrorist group is known to have developed or deployed a nuclear explosive device, and the severity of the threat of nuclear terrorism remains disputed amongst international scholars. So it becomes too early to conclude that how grave the threats of nuclear terrorism are. James kitfield concludes in an interview from security expert that:

Seven years after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, experts and presidential candidates continue to put nuclear terrorism atop their lists of the gravest threats to the United States. Yet Brian Michael Jenkins, a longtime terrorism expert with the Rand Corp., says that the threat lies more in the realms of Hollywood dramas and terrorist dreams than in reality. There has never been an act of nuclear terrorism, he notes, yet the threat is so potentially catastrophic that it incites fear — and that fear fulfills a terrorist’s primary goal.

In nutshell, we can say that it takes much more than knowledge of the workings of nuclear weapons and access to fissile material to successfully manufacture a usable weapon. Current safety and security systems help ensure that the successful use of a stolen weapon would be very unlikely. Meaning, it remains, thankfully, an incredibly challenging task for terrorists to practice their idea in a successful way to meet their objectives.

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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