Preventing Nuclear Terrorism

For well over a half-century, the world has lived under the threat of nuclear war between nuclear-armed nations. The end of the Cold War in 1990 accelerated the pace of U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions and raised the prospect that all nuclear weapons might someday be verifiably eliminated.

But with the collapse of the Soviet Union came a new danger. Russia’s stockpiles of nuclear materials, formerly protected by Soviet troops, became more vulnerable to theft, sale, or diversion, creating the real risk that terrorists might acquire the necessary ingredients to build a crude nuclear bomb. At the same time, more nations have nuclear weapons or store nuclear material that could be used to make nuclear weapons.

According to the April 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review Report, today’s most immediate and extreme danger is nuclear terrorism. Al Qaeda and their extremist allies are seeking nuclear weapons.”

A nuclear weapon detonated in any of the world’s major cities would have dramatic economic, political, and human consequences.

Despite very successful U.S.-led global effort to secure vulnerable nuclear stockpiles over the past two decades through the Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction program, large stocks of nuclear weapons usable materials still remain in the former-Soviet republics, in Pakistan, and elsewhere around the globe.

There is currently enough highly enriched uranium in the world to make more than 60,000 nuclear weapons, and the level of security over this material varies widely from country-to-country and from site-to-site.

Fortunately, the raw materials for a nuclear bomb do not exist in nature; they must be produced in industrial-scale facilities that only nations or large organizations can build. Natural uranium must be enriched to bomb-grade before it becomes usable in a nuclear weapon. Plutonium, the other nuclear bomb material, must be produced in a nuclear reactor and separated from other nuclear byproducts for use in a weapon.

As a result, a terrorist organization would need to somehow acquire an intact nuclear weapon from a national stockpile or obtain nuclear material from existing stocks and then produce a workable explosive. Therefore, the most important steps to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to additional states and terrorist are to:

  • verifiably halt the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium; and
  • effectively secure, reduce, and ultimately eliminate nuclear weapons and materials worldwide.

National and international efforts to lock-down nuclear material are under way in many countries but more work remains to be done. At the first ever Nuclear Security Summit held in April 2010 in Washington, D.C., 46-nations pledged to accelerate efforts to increase the physical security of nuclear materials and reduce the availability of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. According to an April 2011 independent report, states are more than half-way toward their four-year goal of securing the most vulnerable nuclear material.