Nuke containment only as strong as weakest link

With nuclear terror, there is every reason to hope but very much to fear. Consider these findings of an analysis of the current situation by a scholar at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA:

  • A nuclear bomb cannot be made without the necessary nuclear materials, and these materials are beyond the plausible capabilities of terrorists to produce. Thus, if the existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons and materials can be secured effectively and prevented from falling into terrorist hands, nuclear weapons terrorism can be effectively prevented: no material, no bomb.
  • But in dealing with terrorists who have proven their ability to search out and strike weak points on a global basis, security from nuclear terrorism only is as good as its weakest link — insecure bomb material anywhere is a threat to everyone, everywhere. That means homeland security begins abroad — wherever insecure nuclear material is to be found. Strengthening or eliminating the weakest links in nuclear security is a big job, but a finite one — and one that technology is available to accomplish. Here are four challenges to our future security:

  1. Terrorists want to get a nuclear bomb, as both Osama bin Laden’s public statements and the documents outlining al Qaeda’s nuclear program recovered in Afghanistan make clear.
  2. If terrorists could get hold of the highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium that are the essential ingredients of a nuclear bomb, making a bomb might well be within the capabilities of a large and sophisticated group such as al Qaeda. Making a "gun-type" bomb — the type that obliterated Hiroshima — from HEU involves little more than slamming two pieces of HEU together fast enough. (The Hiroshima bomb was a cannon barrel that fired a shell of HEU into rings of HEU.)
  3. Hundreds of tons of nuclear material in dozens of countries around the world today remain dangerously vulnerable to theft. Many of the more than 130 civilian research reactors using HEU fuel (which are scattered in some 40 countries, on every inhabited continent) have no more security than a night watchman and a chain-link fence. Most of the nuclear facilities in the world — including many in the United States — would not be able to provide a reliable defense against attacks as large and coordinated as terrorists have already proved they are capable of.
  4. If terrorists could steal, buy, or make a nuclear bomb, there can be little confidence that the U.S. government could stop them from smuggling it into the United States. After all, thousands of tons of illegal drugs and millions of illegal immigrants cross U.S. borders every year, despite massive efforts to stop them. The essential ingredients of a nuclear bomb can fit easily into a briefcase — and can be made quite difficult to detect. And unlike the situation with drugs or illegal immigrants, nuclear terrorists only have to succeed once to cause a terrifying catastrophe.


1. Bunn M. Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: A Progress Update. Cambridge, MA: Project on Managing the Atom, Harvard University, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative; 2003.