Center for Arms Control

Nuclear Terrorism

Nuclear Terrorism

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.


John Isaacs

John Isaacs

Senior Fellow
202-546-0795 ext. 2222
jdi AT armscontrolcenter DOT org


Aug 15, 2014

Senate Appropriators Defy Administration on Nukes

A summary and analysis of the FY 2015 Senate Appropriations Committee Energy and Water Bill and report.

Jun 12, 2014

Fact Sheet: The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program

The Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, also known as the Nunn-Lugar Program, was created to secure and dismantle weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union.

May 19, 2014

Report Card: Non-Proliferation & Nuclear Terrorism Prevention Program Funding

A report card grading the White House's funding request and the House Armed Services Committee authorization for nuclear non-proliferation and nuclear terrorism prevention programs for Fiscal Year 2015.

May 19, 2014

Knoxville News Sentinel Covers the Center's Non-Proliferation Report Card

Kingston Reif, the center’s director of nuclear non-proliferation programs, said in a statement distributed this afternoon, “President Obama has often stated that a mushroom cloud over Manhattan is what keeps him up at night, but his budget request slashed hundreds of millions of dollars from critical programs that keep dangerous nuclear and radiological materials out of the hands of terrorists.”

Apr 16, 2014

Fact Sheet: FY 2015 Budget Request for Nuclear and Radiological Material Security and Nonproliferation Programs

A summary of the FY 2015 budget request for nuclear and radiological security and nonproliferation programs.

Apr 1, 2014

Mother Jones Story on Nuclear Non-Proliferation Funding Cuts Quotes Center Spokesman

"It's misplaced priorities across the board," says James Lewis, communications director for the Center For Arms Control And Non-Proliferation. The nation's nuclear weapons complex "is just such a massive behemoth that there really isn't money for anything else."

Mar 31, 2014

Roll Call Publishes OpEd on Nuclear Material Security by Gen. George A. Buskirk & Board Member, Alexandra Toma

"Preventing one of the major threats of our time currently relies on a voluntary mishmash of security arrangements — we can and should do much better. Bolder action is needed to strengthen the persistent weak links in the chain to prevent the world’s most dangerous materials from falling into the wrong hands. Congress must now rise to the challenge. There is much work to be done," writes Gen. George A. Buskirk & Alexandra Toma for Roll Call.

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