'Loose Nukes': a Distant But Still Critical Threat

The current alarm rests on questionable assumptions

Many believe it is only a matter of time before "loose nukes" in Russia fall into the hands of nuclear terrorists. Stories about the exploits of a "nuclear mafia" are a staple of the tabloid press, and mainstream publications speculate that terrorists or international crime syndicates could resort to nuclear blackmail to threaten Western industrial nations.

But how real is the prospect of nuclear terrorism?

In 1993, Germany recorded 234 incidents of suspected smuggling of an assortment of nuclear-related materials. Then, with the seizure of 300 grams of plutonium at the Munich airport in August 1994, it appeared that - for the first time - there was solid evidence that weapon-grade material was coming on the market.

But to date there has never been a genuine nuclear threat from terrorists. No nongovernmental group or individual has come anywhere close to obtaining a nuclear weapon - whether by theft or by the construction of a "homemade" device.

To understand why there has been no act of nuclear terrorism we have to question some common assumptions about terrorists and nuclear weapons:

Assumption No. 1: Terrorists want nuclear weapons.

Terrorists are willing to use violence and are indifferent to making victims of innocent bystanders. In fact, the more victims, the bigger the headlines. Yet high death-toll incidents - like the explosions at the World Trade Center in New York and the federal office building in Oklahoma City - are relatively rare. The majority of terrorist incidents result in few or no casualties.

Why? One explanation is that the terrorists' main objective is to attract as much attention as possible, not to create as many victims as possible. Mass murder might also claim the lives of terrorists' sympathizers and lead to estrangement from their cause.

The goal of nuclear blackmail would have to be truly monumental, because less important goals, like the release of comrades from prison, can be achieved without anything so extreme. Yet the goal must still be realistic enough that a government could actually fulfill the terrorists' demand.

This is not to say that terrorists will not want nuclear weapons in the future. The recent increase in suicide operations and high-tech terrorism are disturbing, to be sure.

Assumption No. 2: Nuclear weapons are easy to make.

US government agencies have sometimes encouraged this notion. In 1977, a study by the Office of Technological Assessment concluded that a very small group without secret information could produce a basic nuclear explosive device. But the idea that terrorists can readily build a bomb is naive. After all, a number of countries with vast resources and expertise - such as Iraq - have struggled unsuccessfully to produce one.

Reports of nuclear smuggling suggest that fissile material may be obtained on the black market. But obtaining such material is only one step - and the amount needed depends on the level of technology. As a rule, the more basic the design of a weapon, the more fissile material required. Also, production of a weapon requires personnel with special know-how in physics, chemistry, metallurgy, and electronics.

Assumption No. 3: "Rogue nations" might be willing to help.

State-sponsored terrorism is a reality not limited to the Middle East. But given the record so far, it seems unlikely that any sponsoring state would willingly pass along nuclear know-how or nuclear weapons. When it comes to nuclear weapons, the relations between nuclear and non-nuclear allies - even in NATO - involve security arrangements that imply deep distrust. The idea that any state - "rogue nation" or not - would hand over the control of nuclear weapons to an organization of criminals or religious zealots is nearly inconceivable, although we cannot rule it out.

Assumption No. 4: "Loose nukes" could be smuggled from the former Soviet arsenal.

Even a rare lapse in security in a country with roughly 30,000 warheads could be catastrophic, and there has been a progressive disintegration in organizational structures in the former Soviet Union. But the military organizations responsible for nuclear weapon security there have proven more reliable than feared. None of the reported smuggling has involved critical items from weapon stocks. Of course, there is no guarantee that the current stability in the military nuclear sector will continue indefinitely.

Assumption No. 5: A stolen weapon could be detonated.

Most nuclear weapons would be highly unsuitable for terrorist use because of their size and the difficulty of transporting them. Beyond that, nuclear weapons have a series of built-in safeguards, including self-destruct mechanisms that can be overridden only by a small circle of specially trained technicians. Terrorists would have to number in their ranks someone with specific knowledge about a particular device. That can't be ruled out, but it is highly unlikely.

The greater risk arising from the instability of the former Soviet Union is that a state on the nuclear threshold - a state that possesses the will, resources, and corresponding facilities - will obtain useful nuclear materials. That is a serious, but separate, threat.

Although the probability of nuclear terrorism is low, the potential cost is grave enough to deserve continuing attention. Combating nuclear terrorism should be the responsibility of Western security alliances, not individual countries. NATO has already announced the long-term development of military options against the use of weapons of mass destruction by non-state actors. But this is only a first step.

Funds should be made available to secure or destroy fissile materials and for antismuggling and antiterrorist efforts. Nuclear terrorism cannot be ignored until there is a crisis. It must be perceived as a long-term risk that demands continuing attention.

*Karl-Heinz Kamp heads the foreign and security policy section of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Germany. This is adapted from the July-August 1996 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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