"Loose Nukes" and the Threat of Nuclear Terror

Ryan Smith
May 26, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Semipalatinsk, site of the Cold War-era nuclear test facility recently cleaned up by a joint Russian-American-Kazakh effort. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The days of the Cold War, though thick with suspicion and paranoia, were characterized by a simple, game-theoretic approach to international affairs: the United States and USSR were locked in a geopolitical chess match, a contest governed by a set of unspoken rules and conventions. In the modern world - where the threat of non-state nuclear action looms larger than ever before - these rules have largely fallen by the wayside. Thanks to such factors as the disorganization of the Soviet Union at the moment of its collapse and the black-market machinations of Pakistan's A.Q. Khan, the whereabouts of large amounts of nuclear material are currently unknown, as are the intentions of whoever is in possession of them.

Providing a closer look at these factors, and at their possible implications in the amorphous arena of non-state terrorism, is the principal objective of this paper. Bearing in mind the affordances of modern technology, and the effects they could have on national security worldwide, will be essential throughout.

How Secure Are Soviet Nuclear Materials?

A 2013 write-up in the New York Times heralded the conclusion of a seventeen-year project undertaken jointly by scientists in the U.S. and Russia: the cleaning up of a defunct Kazakh nuclear test facility. Funded primarily by the United States, the $150 million endeavor sought to cleanse the area of high-purity plutonium - a substance which, in the wrong hands, could pave the way to the construction of a potent fission bomb. Russian, for its part, supplied valuable information on the plant, while local Kazakhs provided much of the on-the-ground manual labor. [1]

While in many ways a success story, this tale is also a worrying one. When American nuclear experts first arrived at the site, they found it overrun by Kazakh copper scavengers - well-established opportunists with the resources and know-how to strip (tainted) metal from the ground in staggering bulk. [1] The essentially unguarded complex had lain unattended for seven years following the end of the Cold War. And though the conviction of U.S. and Russian scientists in seeing this work done was admirable, it is unrealistic to expect America to shell out hundreds of millions of additional dollars to Russia and other ex-Soviet states over the coming years to assist with the mop-up of every irresponsibly equipped nuclear facility out there. Throughout the Cold War, Russia was sloppy in terms of both bookkeeping and security - the ultimate price of this laxness remains to be seen.

It is true that, as a rule, the great majority of Russia's strategic nuclear weapons stockpiles are well-guarded and fenced-off. Nevertheless, as the Times notes in a long-form piece titled "Nuclear Nightmares," danger abounds. For one, there is a real possibility of an inside job. Many of the military personnel now guarding these bases are disgruntled, disillusioned veterans of the Cold War, individuals desperate to provide for their families and questionably loyal to their homeland. Breaching a Russian nuclear compound from the outside may be a daunting prospect, but thievery on the part of those who already have clearance is alarmingly feasible. [2] Moreover, Russia's tactical nuclear weapons - and non-weaponized nuclear material - are far less carefully protected than its strategic armaments. Their security was never incorporated into Cold War-era treaties, since strategic nuclear weapons were seen as the primary concern.

Enter A.Q. Khan

The notion of nuclear technology proliferating discreetly across the globe is no trifling fear: A.Q. Khan, father of the Pakistani nuclear program, has already made this scenario reality. Khan, to this day lionized in his homeland for giving his people the means to stand firm against nuclear India, orchestrated the large-scale international smuggling of nuclear equipment and raw material in the twilight years of the Cold War. One deal brokered by Khan entailed the transfer to Libya of $100 million in nuclear tech as well as stolen blueprints for a ten-kiloton bomb. Other business ventures brought him into contact with Iran, China, and North Korea. Before his ultimate arrest, A.Q. Khan had visited eighteen separate nations in his quest to make a killing off of nuclear weapons. [3]

Nearly as troubling as Khan's conduct itself was the ineptitude with which it was dealt with. Given Pakistan's status as an "ally" of the United States, the punishment imposed on Khan and his country wound up being tantamount to a slap on the wrist. Khan continued to live in his own home in Pakistan after being exposed, a national hero under house arrest. [3] Khan had long been under CIA observation, but the agency labored under the delusion that allowing Khan to move freely and observing him would be more valuable than putting a stop to his activity. Finally, President Bush's combative relationship with the International Atomic Energy Agency meant that the U.S. and the international nuclear regulatory community were at loggerheads as to how to address the question of Khan's network after its uncovering. [3]

Pakistan, of course, denies having been aware of Khan's malfeasance - a story that seems highly implausible in light of his reliance on the Pakistani military. If this imbroglio is any indication, responding effectively to a nuclear terrorist act will be a messy process indeed. Just how likely is such an occurrence? The following section offers some thoughts.

Nuclear Terrorism - Feasible or Fanciful?

In an article titled "Could ISIS Really Attack the West With a Dirty Drone?," Popular Mechanics criticized the scare-mongering rhetoric of Britain's Prime Minister, who recently remarked that a drone-borne radiological weapon deployed in open air could very well be the next tool of terror to see action on the world stage. [4] The magazine astutely noted that, while a terrorist network could conceivably get its hands on the raw chemical material needed for such a device, integrating that poisonous material into a technologically sophisticated transport and dispersal apparatus would require resources with which few of the ragtag groups operating today are equipped. Rehearsing the attack in the target region would be impossible, and more likely than not, any terrorists handling the material would develop serious health problems before even getting that far. [4]

This is not to say that the threat of a radiological attack is nil. For instance, "Nuclear Nightmares" calls attention to the laxness of United States cargo inspection: an infinitesimal percentage of cargo crates coming into the U.S. by boat are thoroughly examined, and uranium is difficult to pick up via external scanning. [2] This means that a terrorist could potentially sneak a less flashy incarnation of a dirty bomb into the country with minimal difficulty, and ultimately set it off in a densely populated urban space. Casualties would not necessarily be staggering, but the psychological impact of such an event would further heighten the already-dangerous level of fearfulness currently at play in the U.S. and other nations.

The prospect of a terrorist organization assembling a full-fledged Hiroshima-style explosive device is widely held to be less likely, though not impossible. Given that, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, only 41% of weapons-usable nuclear material in Russia is entirely secure, and given also that, per UN weapons inspector David Albright, "You can [make a bomb] with ten to fifteen people, not all PhD's, but some engineers, technicians," the threat of non-state nuclear weapons use should not be entirely ignored. [2] But neither should our focus be shifted away from state actors, which, in light of their far superior technological and infrastructural capabilities, remain the chief cause for concern.


In sum, it behooves us to be conscious of the degree to which nuclear material and associated technology have proliferated in the wake of the Cold War. While a full-on nuclear bombing on the part of any actor - state or non-state - is unlikely in the near future, the possibility of a rogue group unleashing some sort of radiological attack is one for which we as world citizens would do well to proactively prepare. Part of this preparation entails the bolstering of security at both nuclear compounds and national borders. Another part is psychological: going forward, we need to be cognizant of methods whereby the panic liable to result from such a tragedy can be kept at bay.

© Ryan Smith. 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] E. Barry, "A Secret Race for Abandoned Nuclear Material," New York Times, 17 Aug 13.

[2] B. Keller, "Nuclear Nightmares," New York Times, 26 May 02.

[3] W. J. Broad and D. E. Sanger, "As Nuclear Secrets Emerge In Khan Inquiries, More Are Suspected," New York Times, 26 Dec 04.

[4] D. Hambling, "Could ISIS Really Attack The West With a Dirty Drone?," Popular Mechanics, 8 Apr 16.