Is Nuclear Terrorism on the Horizon?

Opemipo Akerele
March 25, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: UN 2012 Conference with a theme to counter Nuclear Terrorism. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Former US President Barack Obama has stated that the danger of a terrorist group obtaining and using a nuclear weapon is one of the greatest threats to global security. [1] This is surely a topic of interest as conferences have been made even at the UN on this topic (see Fig. 1). Though nuclear terrorism has been a topic of discourse since the mid-1970s with the negotiation of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials and the development by the International Atomic Energy Agency of the first set of international guidelines for physical protection, recent concerns about nuclear terrorism came after the collapse of the Soviet Union left 35,000 nuclear warheads and thousands of tons of nuclear material spread across Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus. [1] Additionally, the events of 9/11 caused national security against terrorism terrorist violence to be reevaluated and gave credence to the idea that a capable terrorist organization motivated by the desire to cause mass casualties might succeed in nuclear terrorism. [1] Furthermore, the rise and global reach of powerful and well- funded terrorist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, combined with the spread of civilian nuclear energy to new countries across the globe, has yet again placed nuclear terrorism high on the political agenda of many states. [1]

Potential Threats and Visions for the Future

The various ways in which a terrorist organization could carry out an act of nuclear terrorism the use of an RDD or RED, an attack or sabotage against a nuclear facility, or the detonation of a stolen intact nuclear weapon or terrorist-made crude nuclear device yield substantial hurdles any terrorist organization would face in this pursuit. [1] However, without belittling or exaggerating the threat being likely or imminent, the international community should take the threat of nuclear terrorism seriously. Though nuclear terrorism remains a low probability event and a significant act of nuclear or radiological terrorism has yet to occur, scholars and the policy community should not minimize the threat because there are disastrous consequences of such an event and interest in this field matters. [1] Smith has noted: "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." [2,3]

© Opemipo Akerele. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for non-commercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M. A. Pomper and G. Tarini, "Nuclear Terrorism - Threat or Not?," AIP Conf. Proc. 1898, 050001 (2017).

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

[3] R. Smith, "'Loose Nukes' and the Threat of Nuclear Terror," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.