Nuclear terrorism

Nuclear terrorism is defined by the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (2005) as the intentional possession or use of radioactive material or a nuclear device, or causing damage to a nuclear facility and releasing radioactive material in order to cause death or serious bodily injury or to cause substantial damage to property or to the environment. The Convention exempts the use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict between States from this definition, without recognizing the legality of nuclear weapons.

There is no generally accepted definition of the word terrorism (from Latin terror, fear). Terrorism refers to the systematic use of violence or destruction, often against civilian targets, to induce fear to force political or other types of changes in society. The term has been used primarily when the violence is carried out by individuals or groups. Recently the word has also been used in some circumstances when the actor is a state, although this can blur the distinction between war and terrorism.

Concerns about nuclear terrorism increased after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the USA on September 11, 2001. Rumors and unsubstantiated reports claim that different terrorist groups have attempted to acquire nuclear weapons and persist in their efforts.

In 2005, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously accepted an international convention prohibiting nuclear terrorism. The convention criminalizes possession, use or threat of use of radioactive devices, including nuclear weapons, by non-state actors with the aim of killing or harming persons, property, or the environment. Attacks on nuclear power plants and other nuclear structures are prohibited. There is also a Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), comprising 85 member states.

Nuclear weapon terrorism

How great is the risk of nuclear terrorism? This depends on how difficult it would be for a terrorist group to acquire nuclear weapons or radiological material, and whether it would actually use such devices if it had them.

American and British security services take the risk of terrorism with nuclear weapons or a radioactive device seriously, and have interrupted several attempts to acquire the necessary materials. Attempts have been made to calculate mathematically the risk of a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon. Using highly uncertain—but plausible—assumptions, one study placed the risk at 29% per decade.

A well organized terrorist group could conceivably make a crude nuclear weapon if it got access to highly enriched uranium (HEU). Converting research reactors and reactors producing isotopes for medical use to the use of low-enriched uranium, and securing all stores of HEU would be the most effective way to decrease the risk of nuclear terrorism.

A nuclear weapon using plutonium would be too complicated for a terrorist group to make, but plutonium might be a useful source of radioactive material for a dirty bomb. The enormous stores of plutonium in some nuclear-weapon states and in Japan, which has large amounts of plutonium generated by nuclear power reactors, must be guarded securely.

The possibility that a nuclear weapon could be sold or given away by a failing state cannot be discounted. Theft of a functioning nuclear weapon, on the other hand, is far less likely as deployed missiles and bombs can’t be used without carefully guarded launch codes, and are often not fully assembled.

Attack against a nuclear reactor

While flying an airplane into a reactor building or attacking it with heavy artillery are conceivable means of attack, so far no terrorist group has damaged a nuclear power plant. Were such an attack to succeed, a meltdown of the reactor core or a fire or explosion could result in severe radioactive contamination of a large area. Highly radioactive, used fuel is often stored in buildings close to the reactors themselves. Stored spent fuel needs constant cooling to prevent it from catching fire.

The experiences from the Fukushima reactor disaster indicate that under certain circumstances it may be sufficient to disable the electrical systems in the reactor in order to cause a meltdown. A terrorist group with detailed information about the design and construction of the reactor and its cooling system could do this.

Security breaches

Nuclear weapons facilities and nuclear power plants in the USA have repeatedly failed security system tests, even with advance knowledge that such tests will be conducted. Activist groups engaged in civil disobedience have also gained access to military bases and other facilities where nuclear weapons are kept. No security system is foolproof.

“Dirty bombs”

In Russia, a group of terrorists placed a “dirty bomb” loaded with radioactive cesium -137 in a park in Moscow. The bomb was intended as a threat and was never detonated.

Radioactive material from machines used in many industries and hospitals can be packed into explosive devices. Radioactive waste from nuclear reactors is plentiful. If a “dirty bomb” explosion were to take place in an urban setting—a subway station or an airport terminal, for example—the radioactivity could make the facility unusable for a very long time.

If a dirty bomb were to explode in a crowded area, hundreds or thousands of persons might receive dangerous doses of radioactivity. The number of individuals with radiation sickness would likely overwhelm available medical facilities. The economic consequences of an explosion of a “dirty bomb” in a major city could be enormous.

Consequences of a terrorist attack with a nuclear weapon

A nuclear warhead made with 20 kg of highly enriched uranium would, if detonated in the air above a city, cause destruction comparable to that inflicted upon Hiroshima. If the bomb were detonated at ground level, rather than in the air, the destruction from fires and blast would be somewhat smaller but the nuclear fallout would be greater and spread over a larger area.

For instance, were terrorists to detonate a bomb of this size on Manhattan, 52 000 people would be killed directly, while the number seriously affected by radiation could be 100 000 or more, depending mostly on the direction of the wind.

In addition to the medical and environmental consequences of the explosion, the economic consequences of the destruction of a major center of the world economy would be very far reaching. New York Harbor would be closed for a long time, compounding the humanitarian disaster for the USA and for the world.

Terrorist organizations

Three terrorist groups in the world are known to have attempted to acquire nuclear weapons: Al Qaeda, Aum Shinrikyo, and Chechen terrorist groups.

Al Qaeda

Al Qaeda is the most well known terrorist network in the world. This organization carried out the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001.

Al Qaeda and its leader, Usama bin Laden, showed, in words and in action, that they intended to acquire nuclear weapons to use against the USA and its allies. Bin Laden said in a TV interview that this was a “religious duty”.

The US war in Afghanistan, begun in October 2001, broke up al Qaeda and many members fled to other countries. Much of the documentation on the activities of the network disappeared. The CIA has reported finding several documents indicating that the organization intended to obtain nuclear weapons. The reason al Qaeda did not carry out its plans to get nuclear weapons is not clear.

Aum Shinrikyo

The Japanese sect Aum Shinrikyo became known to the world when members released sarin, a very dangerous nerve gas, into part of the Tokyo subway system. Twelve persons were killed and about 1300 injured.

The leader of the sect, Shoko Asahara, was obsessed with weapons of mass destruction and wanted to start a global nuclear war in which the members of the group would be the only survivors.

Aum Shinrikyo saw Russia as a possible source to obtain nuclear weapons. There are reports that personnel from the Kurchatov Institute, a leading center for nuclear research, were recruited by the group. Shoko Asahara, however, turned his attention to the nerve gas project.

Chechen guerrilla groups

Several documents obtained from Chechen terrorist groups show an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons and “dirty bombs” or attacking nuclear power plants. In 2002, Aslan Mahadov, the leader of Chechnya at that time, warned of such attacks “with catastrophic consequences not only for Russia and Chechnya but for all Europe”.

Nuclear weapons against terrorist groups

Political leaders in both France and the USA claim that they need nuclear weapons in the “war against terrorism”. Former French President Jacques Chirac said that any country that supported terrorism against France should expect to be attacked with nuclear weapons. Such a use of nuclear weapons could itself be considered a war crime or even an act of terrorism


Last update: August 24, 2015