Thoughts about Nuclear Terrorism and Primitive Nuclear Weapons
The possibility that terrorists will acquire and detonate a nuclear weapon horrifies the world.
Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) are one of the most prominent subjects in the news
since the terrorist attacks in America on 11 September 2001. Many signs suggest that
fundamentalist terrorism will become more frequent and terrorists will try to acquire and
use WMDs in attacks during the next decade.
A nuclear weapon is potentially the most destructive of all the WMDs. Even the explosion of
a primitive nuclear weapon by a terrorist group can kill a large number of people and cause
enormous damage. The dramatic impact of a nuclear explosion is possibly why some
terrorist groups will try to acquire and detonate a nuclear weapon.
Although a terrorist can attempt to steal a military nuclear weapon or to buy such a weapon
on the black market, the main threat is the possibility that a terrorist group will acquire the
necessary materials and construct a crude nuclear device.
People offer many opinions with regard to the plausibility of these threats. Some people say
that a terrorist group can produce a nuclear device with a yield of several kilotons. A nuclear
device could possibly be made by an individual during a few weeks, with commonly available
materials (because fissile material is also available). The device may also be made sufficiently
small for easy transportation in a automobile.
Primitive Nuclear Weapons
Illegal nuclear weapons may be bought, stolen complete, or be built from stolen state
nuclear components. Alternatively a primitive nuclear weapon could be made from nothing
by a terrorist group by means of illegally acquired fissile materials. These are often referred
to in articles and other literature as "Improvized Nuclear Devices".
Primitive nuclear weapons are sometimes confused with Radiological Dispersal Devices
(RDDs), which are often called "dirty bombs". A dirty bomb is not really a nuclear weapon,
because it does not create a nuclear explosion (yield); it spreads radioactive material around.
It can potentially be formed from a conventional high explosive and a quantity of radioactive
material. The detonation of a dirty bomb would not at all have the impact of a nuclear yield
device. It is unlikely to be any more effective than conventional explosives.
Terrorist groups would likely be satisfied with a nuclear device which is a lot less
sophisticated than the nuclear weapons which state military programs develop. The result of
a successful detonation of even a primitive nuclear explosive would be catastrophic loss of
life, destruction of infrastructure and contamination of a very large area. In theory, it is
possible that a crude nuclear explosive, if it is designed and built by terrorists, can explode
with a power equal to hundreds of tons TNT. For comparison, the biggest conventional
bombs which have been used in war had explosive powers which were equal to
approximately ten tons of TNT.
It is possible that a terrorist group could become able to design and try to build primitive
nuclear weapon as a result of the acquisition of plutonium or highly enriched uranium. Both
materials have been produced in large quantities in nuclear weapon and civilian nuclear
energy programs around the world.
The greatest limit for a terrorist group is the type of fissile material which they can acquire,
and the quantity. The biggest problem is to obtain fissile material in reality at all. It is
probable that a terrorist will not have a lot of choice with regard to the type of material.
The greatest problem with regard to weapons-usable nuclear material is to find suppliers.
Weapons-grade plutonium is the most scarce and strongly protected of the classes of
nuclear material which can be used in illegal acquisition (HEU and weapons-grade
plutonium). HEU has been available for civilian applications for many years, and has not
always been strongly protected. Recently America has tried to rule out the civilian use of
HEU, but it remains a cause for serious concern.
The rapidly-expanding civilian production and use of reactor-grade plutonium is the main
concern for the present and for the future. Many nations already have, or soon can have,
large stockpiles of this material. Many stockpiles and a large trade in plutonium greatly
increase the risk of theft. Already more than hundreds of tons of plutonium have been
separated commercially. This material will be in the hands of many nations, and they will
probably not be strong in protecting their fuel stocks.
The use of plutonium strongly reduces the need for a lot of fissile material and leads to a
much smaller bomb. Only relatively small quantity of plutonium could be needed in such a
design if a relatively good reflector is used. Such a weapon can weigh as little as a few
hundreds of kilograms. As we saw in the discussion with regard to nuclear testing, it is very
dangerous to produce a device that is close to critical and sophisticated knowledge is
Back in the 1990s, the break-up of the Soviet Union led to a concerning trade in fissile
materials. The possibility of theft in the territories of the former Soviet Union remains a
concern. The quantities of materials that have appeared have not been sufficient to make a
weapon, but they have been sufficiently big to cause great concern. We can hope that now
the former Soviet fissile stocks are sufficiently secured to eliminate this problem as an
The question of the design and production of a weapon follows after the acquisition of
enough weapons-usable fissile material. There are many technical challenges which
scientists must overcome to produce a viable nuclear weapon. Such a task could be too
technologically demanding for a terrorist group and has so far never been achieved.
However, the world should see this possibility as a serious concern.
There are suspicions that terrorists may have planned to construct a primitive nuclear device.
Hand-drawn sketches which are thought to be nuclear bomb designs were found in a
house in Kabul. Reports say the house was inhabited by terrorists of al-Qaeda.
The documents do not show if al-Qaeda in reality tried to build such a weapon. However it is
thought that they were working on a serious nuclear program and perhaps are still possibly
working on such a program.
A terrorist will need relatively good knowledge, expertise about nuclear design, and access
to nuclear material in order to construct and detonate a primitive nuclear weapon. Thus the
easy availability and proliferation of such information, particularly with the help of the
internet, is also a particular concern.