World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. AP photo.
Nuclear terrorism is one of the most serious threats to the security of the United States. The attacks of September 11, 2001 tragically demonstrated the reality of terrorism to the American people, but over a decade later, serious efforts are still urgently needed to prevent a nuclear attack from occurring in the U.S.
Most experts agree that any nation would take an enormous risk in knowingly providing a nuclear weapon or nuclear materials to a terrorist organization because of the unpredictable consequences of cooperating with a renegade group. If a state-supplied nuclear weapon were ever used against a nuclear-armed state by terrorists, the resultant retaliation against the supplying state would be swift and massive.
If a state didn't knowingly provide a nuclear weapon, how then could terrorists get one?
One way would be to surreptitiously buy or steal an assembled nuclear weapon without the supplying nuclear state's official knowledge. Though unlikely, a terrorist group could obtain unaccounted "loose nukes" in Russia without the Duma or the Russian administration having any knowledge of the transaction.
A second, more plausible, way would be for terrorists to obtain enough weapons-grade material to assemble a weapon themselves. A possible source is Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union, where sites with relatively minimal security provide opportunities for terrorists. Assembling the device, however, would pose serious technical, though not insurmountable, challenges to a terrorist group.
Efforts to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism include programs such as Cooperative Threat Reduction, commonly known as Nunn-Lugar, aimed at securing and dismantling vulnerable nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union; Global Threat Reduction Initiative, directed at securing and eliminating global high-risk nuclear and radiological materials and equipment; and the International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation prorgram, geared towards improving security and accounting for highly enriched uranium (HEU) in Russia and the former Soviet Union. While these programs have demonstrated substantial progress in reducing the threat, current estimates conclude that as of January 2012 there are still approximately 1440 tons of HEU and around 500 tons of separated plutonium stockpiled globally.
In 2010, President Barack Obama hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C. aimed at preventing nuclear terrorism. Attended by 47 world leaders, the Summit raised international awareness at the highest level on the need for global cooperation to prevent nuclear materials from falling into terrorist hands. A second Summit was held in Seoul in 2012 and a third is planned for the Netherlands in 2014.
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- Michael Levi, On Nuclear Terrorism, (Washington, D.C.: Council on Foreign Relations and Harvard University Press, November 2007).
- Matthew Bunn, Securing the Bomb 2007, (Washington, D.C.: Project on Managing the Atom, Harvard University, and Nuclear Threat Initiative, September 2007).
- Ashton Carter, Michael May, and William Perry, "The Day After: Action Following a Nuclear Blast in a US City," The Washington Quarterly 30:4 (Autumn 2007), pp. 19-32.
- Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism: Joint Statement (U.S. Department of State, June 12, 2007).
- Government Accountability Office, "Nuclear Security: Steps to Better Track and Detect Radioactive Materials," June 19, 2008.