Nuclear Terrorism

Nikhil Basutkar
March 24, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Simulated dirty bomb attack during the Exercise Palmetto Response. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nuclear terrorism has incredible potential to wreak havoc and disrupt average people's way of life. President Obama has pointed out that it is one of the biggest threats to national security that the United States faces today. [1] The two general ways that a terrorist organization can commit acts of nuclear terrorism are: 1.) obtaining a nuclear weapon from a nuclear weapon state's arsenal, or 2.) obtaining nuclear fissile materials to build what is called a "dirty bomb".

From a State's Arsenal

The biggest threats from this pathway of obtaining a dangerous nuclear device are countries like North Korea who have irrational leadership that could, perhaps, be willing to give nuclear weapons to terrorists seeking to damage their enemies. North Korea has repeatedly threatened the United States and especially its ally, South Korea, which neighbors North Korea to the south. Other possible problems could occur if countries like Iran gain access to a nuclear weapon, because Iran has a history of hatred for the United States and has funded terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas in the past. The possibility of a country voluntarily giving up nuclear weapons is unlikely, however. The more likely problem scenario is that one or more nuclear weapons is stolen from a nuclear weapons state's arsenal.

The Dirty Bomb

Dirty bombs could be created by combining nuclear fissile materials and an explosive device, which could create lots of damage if exploded in an area with high population density. There is some debate as to whether terrorist organizations have the capability of storing, delivering, and using nuclear weapons or dirty bombs, but if they are, they could produce massive casualties against any country on the face of the earth. Terrorist organizations have already stolen materials and created dirty bombs in the Middle East and Africa, so this threat is much more important than people usually think. Therefore, governments must look into possible prevention techniques for such disasters, and they have, but with mixed results throughout history.

Prevention Techniques

With the threat of nuclear terrorism so massive because of the potential heavy casualties, governments must look for ways to combat this possible problem in the future. In the past, during exercises designed to prevent nuclear war in countries like the Untied States and the Soviet Union, small mistakes have created huge problems and almost created the nuclear wars that they were working to prevent. For example, a pilot accidentally flew into Soviet territory with a nuclear weapon loaded in his fighter jet, and this almost egged the Soviets on to bomb the United States in retaliation. The Cuban Missile Crisis is another example of a close call. But now, governments have become more aware of the precarious nature of nuclear safety, and have outlined specific target goals for their operations, such as the Exercise Palmetto Response pictured in Fig. 1.


Nuclear terrorism is a huge threat to the developed and developing world today. There have already been instances of dirty bombs, and there have been close calls even with the United States in terms of nuclear safety. However, we are now better than we ever have been at preventing attacks from terrorist organizations on the nuclear front, and this is because of a number of military exercises and operations that have taught our soldiers how to deal with the potential scenarios. However, nuclear terrorism is still a dangerous threat, so an eye must be kept affixed on North Korea and any terrorist organizations attempting to create or get their hands on dirty bombs. In this way, we may be kept safe.

© Nikhil Basutkar. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. Mauroni, "Nuclear Terrorism: Are We Prepared?," Homeland Security Affairs Journal 8, 3