Nuclear terrorism is defined as the use of a nuclear stratagem to cause enormous desolation or the use or threat to deploying fissionable radioactive materials against civilians in order to attain goals that are either political, ideological or religious.

There is no doubt that a terrorist nuclear explosion could kill hundreds of thousands, create billions of dollars in damages and undermines the global economy.  Former Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations said that an act of nuclear terrorism “Would thrust tens of millions of people into dire poverty” and create “a second death toll throughout the developing world.”

Declassified documents have confirmed that the US (and other) governments have anticipated the possibility of a terrorist nuclear incident at such high-profile events as the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama and the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.  The good news is that there was no nuclear terrorism ever experienced, however, there is a consensus among international leaders that the threat of nuclear terrorism is real. President Obama, the leaders of other nations, the heads of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations, and numerous experts have called nuclear terrorism one of the most serious threats to global security and stability.

The first Nuclear Security Summit in 2010 was the largest gathering of heads of governments since the founding of the United Nations 45 years earlier and it put an essential spotlight on the imperative to lockdown vulnerable materials.  In 2010, 47 world leaders gathered in Washington, DC to work together to protect against the greatest security threat facing the world: Catastrophic Nuclear Terrorism.

The 2016 Nuclear Security Summit represented an important crossroads, which will help determine whether nuclear security continues to improve or stalls and begins to decline.  Several very different futures are possible:

At one extreme:

  • On a high-security path, all nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear material worldwide would be effectively and sustainably protected against the full range of plausible threats that terrorists and thieves might pose; the number of locations where such stocks exist would be drastically reduced;
  • Steps would be taken to build understanding of the threat, to strengthen security culture, and combat complacency; and
  • Nations would continue an effective dialogue on next steps in nuclear security after the summit process ended.

That pathway would lead to continuous improvement in nuclear security, in a never-ending quest for nuclear security excellence—and a drastically reduced risk of nuclear terrorism; and

At the other extreme:

  • On a low-security path, many stocks would remain dangerously vulnerable;
  • Few further actions would be taken to minimize the number of locations where nuclear weapons and their essential ingredients exist;
  • Complacency about the threat and weak security cultures would increasingly be the norm; and
  • What little international discussion of nuclear security continued after the summit would be mired in political disputes and bureaucratic obstacles.

On that pathway, nuclear security progress would stall and eventually reverse—and the risks of nuclear terrorism would grow.

The world has entered an age of mass casualty terrorism, in which certain adversaries seek and have the capability to inflict maximum possible carnage to achieve their ends. Making a crude nuclear bomb would not be easy, but is potentially within the capabilities of a technically sophisticated terrorist group, as numerous government studies have confirmed. The main barrier is getting hold of the needed nuclear material—but there are multiple cases in which kilogram quantities of plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) have been stolen. The nuclear material for a bomb is small and difficult to detect, making it a major challenge to stop nuclear smuggling, or to recover nuclear material after it has been stolen.


According to a report published by Project on Managing the Atom (Preventing Nuclear Terrorism), in March 2016, defines the following three types of nuclear and radiological terrorism each pose different risks:

1.1   Detonation of Nuclear Bomb:

Detonation of an actual nuclear bomb, either a nuclear weapon acquired from a state’s arsenal or an improvised nuclear device made from stolen weapons-usable nuclear material. 

The effects of detonation of a bomb would depend on the yield and success of detonation.  A “Homemade” or poorly maintained bomb could be a dud, producing no explosive yield but resulting in the spread of radioactive material; or the device could “Fizzle”, meaning a partial nuclear detonation. A fizzle device, yielding 0.01 KT, would have an impact much greater than the explosive that destroyed the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995.  

Most experts believe that a low-yield device (about 1 KT) is the most likely. The A-bomb detonated over Hiroshima was a 15-KT device; India’s test on May 11, 1998 was a 60 KT device while most strategic weapons today are over 1,000 KT.  Here are some examples of potential damages:

  • Air Blast: As with a conventional explosive, a nuclear detonation produces shock wave, or air blast wave. The air blast, with its accompanying winds, can damage structures and injure individuals. Individuals can also be injured by falling debris and flying glass shards. The air blast from a 1 KT detonation could cause 50 percent mortality from flying glass shards, to individuals within an approximate radius of 300 yards (275 m). This radius increases to approximately 0.3 miles (590 m) for a 10 KT detonation;
  • Heat: The second effect would be extreme heat, a fireball, with temperatures up to millions of degrees. The heat from a fireball is sufficient to ignite materials and cause burns far from the fireball, and the associated intense light may cause blindness. The heat from a 1 KT detonation could cause 50 percent mortality, from thermal burns, to individuals within an approximate 0.4 miles (610 m) radius.  This radius increases to approximately 1.1 miles (1800 m) for a 10 KT detonation. Shadowing by structures between the fireball and the individual will prevent or reduce heat effects;
  • Initial Radiation: The initial radiation is produced in the first minute following detonation. The detonation’s intense initial pulse produces ionizing radiation that causes intense radiation exposures. The initial radiation pulse from a 1 KT device could cause 50 percent mortality from radiation exposure, to individuals, without immediate medical intervention, within an approximate ½ mile (790 m) radius.  This radius increases to approximately ¾ mile (1200m) for a 10 KT detonation.  Individuals in intervening buildings and building basements may receive a reduced exposure due to the additional shielding;
  • Ground Shock:  Ground shock, equivalent to a large localized earthquake, would also occur. This could cause additional damage to buildings, roads, communications, utilities, and other portions of the infrastructure. The ground shock and air blast would be expected to cause the major disruptions in the local infrastructure; and
  • Secondary Radiation: It exposures due to fallout would occur primarily downwind from the blast, but changing weather conditions could spread radioactivity and enlarge the affected area. For a 1 KT device, radiation exposure from fallout within the first hour after the blast could cause 50 percent mortality from radiation exposure, to individuals without medical intervention, for approximately 3.5 miles (5500 m) downwind of the event. This distance increases to approximately 6 miles (9600 m) for a 10 KT detonation. These distances could be greater or smaller, depending on wind and weather conditions. Individuals in intervening buildings and building basements may receive a reduced exposure due to the additional shielding.

1.2   Sabotage of Nuclear Facility:

Nuclear terrorism anywhere would be a global catastrophe.

Recently there has been a noted worldwide increase in violent actions including attempted sabotage at nuclear power plants. Several organizations, such as the IAEA and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, have guidelines, recommendations, and formal threat- and risk-assessment processes for the protection of nuclear assets.

Most nuclear power plants protected by security forces, containment vessels, and redundant safety systems.  However, levels of security vary widely:

  • Some reactors have no (or few) on-site armed guards;
  • Few civilian facilities are designed to cope with 9/11 threat – multiple, coordinated teaming, suicidal, well-trained, from a group with substantial combat and explosives experience; and
  • Some reactors do not have western – style containments, few redundant safety systems.

If attackers could successfully destroy multiple safety systems, reactor could melt down, break containment, and spread radioactive material as at Fukushima.  Similarly, if attackers could successfully drain the water from a densely packed spent fuel pool, real risk that fuel could get hot enough to catch fire, potential Chernobyl scale disaster.

Here is an example of sabotage to nuclear facilities:  An oil leak in its steam turbine in the non-nuclear part of the plant in August 2014 to one of the nuclear reactors belong to Electrabel, a Belgian energy company, necessitated the shutdown of the plant for repair.  The leak caused major damage to the turbine’s high pressure section.  GDF Suez, its parent company, investigated the situation and confirmed that the damage to turbine was due to sabotage.  They confirmed the fact that there was an intentional manipulation which was the result of somebody tampering with the system used for emptying oil from the Alstom-made turbine.

The shutdown of Doel 4’s nearly 1 gigawatt (GW) of electricity generating capacity as well as closures of two other reactors (Doel 3 and Tihange) for months because of cracking in steel reactor casing adds up to just over 3 GW of Belgian nuclear capacity that is offline, more than half of the total.  The closure put further pressure on the earnings of GDF Suez, which estimated to be 3.3 billion to 3.7 billion euros on its group net recurring income.

1.3   Dirty Bomb:

According to a United Nations report, Iraq tested a dirty bomb device in 1987 but found that the radiation levels were too low to cause significant damage. Thus, Iraq abandoned any further use of the device.

If low-level radioactive sources were to be used, the primary danger from a dirty bomb would be the blast itself. Gauging how much radiation might be present is difficult when the source of the radiation is unknown. However, at the levels created by most probable sources, not enough radiation would be present in a dirty bomb to cause severe illness from exposure to radiation.

According to the US Homeland security, a dirty bomb, or radiological dispersion device, is a bomb that combines conventional explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive materials in the form of powder or pellets. The idea behind a dirty bomb is to blast radioactive material into the area around the explosion. This could possibly cause buildings and people to be exposed to radioactive material. The main purpose of a dirty bomb is to frighten people and make buildings or land unusable for a long period of time.

There has been a lot of speculation about where terrorists could get radioactive material to place in a dirty bomb. The most harmful radioactive materials are found in nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons sites. However, increased security at these facilities makes obtaining materials from them more difficult. Because of the dangerous and difficult aspects of obtaining high-level radioactive materials from a nuclear facility, there is a greater chance that the radioactive materials used in a dirty bomb would come from low-level radioactive sources. Low-level radioactive sources are found in hospitals, on construction sites, and at food irradiation plants. The sources in these areas are used to diagnose and treat illnesses, sterilize equipment, inspect welding seams, and irradiate food to kill harmful microbes.

The atomic explosions that occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were conventional nuclear weapons involving a fission reaction. A dirty bomb is designed to spread radioactive material and contaminate a small area. It does not include the fission products necessary to create a large blast like those seen in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It doesn’t take much more expertise to create a dirty bomb than it takes to make a conventional bomb. No special assembly is required; the regular explosive would simply disperse the radioactive material packed into the bomb. The hard part is acquiring the radioactive material, not building the bomb.


The good news is that there is no convincing evidence any terrorist group has yet obtained a nuclear weapon or the materials and expertise needed to make one.  Despite many claims, there is no evidence any state has helped terrorists with nuclear weapons.


  1. The Free Dictionary;
  2. The New York Times: International Atomic Energy Agency;
  3. NTI Nuclear Security Index: Building a Framework for Assurance, Accountability, and Action;
  4. Preventing Nuclear terrorism: Continuous Improvement or Dangerous Decline;
  5. Nuclear Weapon Detonation;
  6. Belfer Center: The Nuclear Terrorism Threat;
  7. Reuters: Update 2 – Belgian 4 Nuclear Reactor closed Till Year-end; and
  8. National Terror Alert: Dirty Bomb.