Nuclear Terrorism: From Destruction to Disruption

David Lin
April 27, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: Simulated Effect of Dirty Bomb in Training Center in North Vernon, Indiana. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The push in many countries to join the global nuclear club has created an environment where international lawmakers must develop safeguards against nuclear proliferation. As a result, the term nuclear terrorism plays into some of the deepest fears of many Americans, particularly in the post-9/11 era. Despite the immeasurable potential damage of a nuclear bomb, the likelihood of terrorists developing or stealing complete nuclear weapons is very low in probability. [1] More likely, terrorists will commit to building dirty bombs or directly targeting nuclear plants. [2,3]

Dirty Bombs

Unlike the fission bombs that epitomize the deathly potential of nuclear weapons, dirty bombs are constructed much like conventional explosives but with added radioactive materials. [4] Terrorist groups will frequently turn to theft to acquire the necessary radioactive components, typically cesium, strontium, or uranium. Highly enriched uranium is particularly hard to produce without the necessary infrastructure and would therefore need to be stolen from nuclear facilities. [1] On the other hand, these groups can turn to hospitals to steal Cs-137, which is commonly used in medical applications. [2] In the status quo, current laws and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission require licenses to use these kinds of radioactive substances and mandate owners to report any sudden loss of material, stolen or not. [4] Even within this regulatory framework, reports of stolen radioactive material are still prevalent. [2]

The resulting weapons created from these presumably stolen materials are most aptly referred to as "Weapons of Mass Disruption" as opposed to the more commonly heard "Weapons of Mass Destruction". The explosions, relative to fission bombs, are millions of times smaller, resulting in significantly less loss of life (See Fig. 1). [4] Instead, the terrorist objective would center around societal disruption. The splattering of radioactive material, even if too small in quantity to cause immediate harm, could create mass paranoia and enormous clean up costs. The psychological effects of such events could lead to evacuations, sudden drops in economic activity, and a ruined public perception of the victimized area. [1,5]

Nuclear Plant Attacks

The dangers of nuclear plant accidents from Fukushima to the Three Mile Island incident are far from forgotten. Historically, these accidents have led to radiation exposure, abandoned towns, environmental damages, and billion-dollar reparation efforts. In the post-9/11 era, the United States invested another $370 million specifically on security measures to protect plants by including more personnel and bolstering construction to withstand natural disasters and potential aerial attacks. [3] Even so, University of Southern California professor Dr. Najmedin Meshkati explains that these plants still contain internal and external vulnerabilities that can be exploited by terrorist groups. [3] Meanwhile, security measures against cyberterrorist attacks are particularly limited. In recent years, Russian engaged in a series of cyberattacks aimed at the energy sector. [6] Moreover, their technologies indicate that they have the potential to sabotage nuclear plant control systems and potentially cause a shutdown.


Every year, the US spends about $35 billion on nuclear programs but only $1.8 billion to fight proliferation and nuclear terrorism efforts. [1] It might be easy to get excited about all the benefits of nuclear energy, but it is imperative that the US invests more to protect these high value resources in order to prevent them from becoming international threats.

© David Lin. 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 noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. Cirincione, "Nuclear Terrorist Threat Bigger Than You Think," CNN, 1 Ap 16.

[2] A. Neuhauser, "How Real Is the Dirty Bomb Threat?," US News, 24 Mar 16.

[3] J. Wells, "Are Nuclear Plants Safe From Attack," CNBC, 11 Dec 12.

[4] "Dirty Bombs," U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, December 2011.

[5] N. Basutkar, "Nuclear Terrorism," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[6] N. Perlroth and D.E. Sangermarch, "Cyberattacks Put Russian Fingers on the Switch at Power Plants, U.S. Says," New York Times, 15 Mar 18.