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Nuclear Terrorism at a Glance

Written by Xavier Bohigas on . Posted in Armamentisme

Analysis about the possibilities of use of nuclear material in a terrorist attack. Article published in the magazine Mientras Tanto, no. 120, second semester 2013, p. 35-52.
Xavier Bohigas is member of Centre Delàs and Professor in the Department of Physics and Nuclear Engineering, Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya.

1. What is nuclear terrorism?

On August 6 and 9, 1947, the United Status dropped two nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The consequences for the civilian population were terrible, causing more than 250,000 deaths within the first two months, another 500,000 victims following subsequent exposure to radiation, and four million more affected among those left wounded and sick by the explosions. The surviving victims of the bombardment (hibakusha) continue to suffer the consequences of the radiation. Even today there are people who suffer cancer-related diseases due to the radiation.1

Shortly after these explosions, the North American political class began to contemplate the possibility that other nation states might build nuclear bombs and threaten to use them against the United States, and also speculated that non-state actors might achieve the ability to use nuclear bombs against U.S. civilians or interests. Discussions on nuclear terrorism were reinitiated in the 1970s as a result of the increase in acts of international terrorism.

The term "nuclear terrorism" refers to the use or threat of using radioactive materials or devices built with these intentionally in acts of terrorism, which also include conventional attacks on nuclear installations.

We normally associate the term "nuclear terrorism" with the use of a nuclear bomb by a group or non-state actor. But it can also take other forms. It is not necessary to detonate a nuclear bomb in order to cause consequences similar to a nuclear explosion. Experts point out that, in the event that a non-state actor wanted to cause a nuclear disaster, the most likely option would be the use of so-called dirty bombs2. A dirty bomb is a bomb triggered by conventional explosive and loaded with radioactive materials that spread as a result of the explosion. Another possibility is that of an attack with conventional arms on a munitions depot containing nuclear weapons, a nuclear waste store, a nuclear fuel warehouse or an operational nuclear-powered electricity generating plant. Any of these could also result in a significant release of radiation.

Building a nuclear bomb is not a major technological challenge; a group of engineers could design one without undue difficulty. The main problem for a non-state group who might want to build a nuclear bomb would be to obtain the materials needed to produce a nuclear explosion. That means obtaining suitable fissile material such as highly enriched uranium or plutonium. There is no free market for these materials, so the group would have to procure it on the black market or steal it. Thus, the main difficulty in building a nuclear bomb lies in acquiring the necessary nuclear material.

The Belfer Center at Harvard University published a comprehensive report on nuclear safety and highlighted four points to consider.3 The first is that Al-Qaeda has tried to obtain nuclear material, although it has not yet succeeded. Second, if a terrorist group were able to obtain enough radioactive material they could build a bomb. Third, if it is true that terrorist groups cannot obtain highly enriched nuclear material, they could steal it. And fourth, nuclear smuggling is very difficult to combat.


2. Incidents involving nuclear terrorism

There exists the idea that both civilian and military nuclear facilities are enclosures that have extensive security protection making them very safe, if not invulnerable. But this is far from the reality; there have been several incidents involving attacks on nuclear installations. Furthermore, several reports indicate that terrorist groups have taken steps toward obtaining nuclear material, including bombs. Another point to consider is the smuggling of nuclear materials, which could enable an independent group to acquire the necessary materials to build a bomb. We discuss some of these incidents below.



People accused of planning nuclear attacks

In November 2006, The Guardian4 reported that the British intelligence service believed that Al-Qaeda was trying to acquire the technology to attack the West and a cell that planned to use nuclear weapons against cities in the United Kingdom. A British national was jailed for planning these attacks, according to the same newspaper. In some of the secret documents obtained by WikiLeaks, it is reported that an Al-Qaeda cell claimed that they had a nuclear bomb that they could detonate if Bin Laden were captured or killed.5 In 2007, the FBI said in a press release that a person was planning to explode nuclear bombs in different cities in the United States of America.6.


Attacks on military installations

In 2007, four people entered the nuclear research facility in Pelindaba, in South Africa, disabling various safety barriers. The installation housed hundreds of kilograms of uranium that could be used in nuclear weapons (25 bombs could be built). The assailants arrived at the control centre of the facility, stole a PC and escaped after a shootout with a security guard7.

Between 2007 and 2008 there were at least three attacks on Pakistani nuclear facilities. One of these took place in the Sargodha nuclear missile depot, another in Kamra air base, and a third in the main nuclear weapons complex in Wah.8. These attacks surprised even terrorism experts. The attacks came after Pakistan had taken steps to improve the security of its facilities against possible attacks, particularly by the United States or India.

In August 2012, the Pakistani Air Force at Kamra, near the capital Islamabad – where Western experts believe that nuclear weapons are stored – was attacked by eight people. This same base was attacked on three previous occasions, in 2007 when a suicide bomber attacked a bus near the entrance, in 2008 when militants fired several rockets, and in 2009, when a suicide bomber blew himself up cycling on a road access.9 The last attack in 2012 was similar to the assault perpetrated on a military base in Karachi in May 2011, in which at least two aircraft were destroyed and 10 people died. There is no evidence that this base had nuclear weapons. This attack had a major impact on the media, evidence for weak security measures at Pakistani military installations. After the attack, the Pakistani authorities insisted that military bases, especially those that store nuclear weapons are safe.10

Pakistani nuclear facilities have always aroused concern because of their weak security measures. When Pakistan began its nuclear program in the 1970s and 1980s, they considered that the main risk of attack would come from India. Therefore, with few exceptions, most nuclear infrastructure was located in the east and north of the country. According to many experts, these concerns have increased because the area where nuclear military facilities are located is currently dominated by Taliban militants, who might be interested in carrying out attacks against them.11 The possibility that some Islamic extremists might try to steal nuclear weapon in Pakistan cannot be discounted.12

Experts say that the likelihood of terrorist groups obtaining a nuclear bomb is small, but add that the part of the world where the greatest likelihood of a nuclear crisis exists is Pakistan,13 because it is a region of great political instability with extremist groups in the region (some, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba with close ties to members of the military14).

The attack on the military nuclear facilities in Pakistan has demonstrated the reality of a possible attack by non-state actors and military nuclear facilities on one hand, and the weak defences of these facilities in Pakistan on the other. Both findings are considered a threat to global security. A study by the Congressional Research Service of the United States indicates that although Pakistan has adopted various measures to improve the security of its facilities in recent years, they do not appear to be sufficient.15

Nuclear Trafficking

Cases of nuclear smuggling are recorded in two databases: the Illicit Trafficking Database of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Database on Nuclear Smuggling, Theft, and Orphan Radiation Sources at the University of Salzburg. Both point to Russia as the source of contraband material and Turkey as its preferred destination. The Black Sea region is thus the world centre for the nuclear black market. In most cases, the workers in a nuclear program have stolen the nuclear material. To date, the known nuclear smuggling attempts have been unsuccessful. And in these cases, the perpetrators have been caught due to their lack of experience in finding a potential buyer or lack of knowledge of methods for conveying the material out of the country.16 Some experts indicate that North Korea could be a potential source of materials and technology for terrorist groups.17 The case of Abdul Qadir Kahn, the driver of Pakistan's nuclear program, is notable.18 In 2004 he admitted to having been involved in a nuclear smuggling network and having sold nuclear technology and knowledge to North Korea, Iran and Libya. He was imprisoned and later released in 2009.

In 1995, the IAEA launched a system to collect information on incidents and illicit trafficking of nuclear materials. It contains records of 2,164 incidents between 1993 and 2011. It must be noted that 16 cases were related to the possession or trafficking or highly enriched uranium or plutonium. In 2011, 147 incidents were recorded, four of which related to highly enriched radioactive material.19 From these data, it follows that states do not have control and security measures that are effective enough to prevent the illegal trafficking of radioactive materials, including the highly enriched uranium (HEU) used in the manufacture of nuclear bombs. In addition, the fact that this illegal trafficking exists indicates that there are parties interested in acquiring these materials.

It seems unlikely that a terrorist group could steal a nuclear bomb, but as we have said, the Pakistani case generates many misgivings. The most likely threat is the theft of highly enriched nuclear material which could be used to build a nuclear bomb; it takes between 25 and 50 kg of highly enriched uranium or plutonium. The current global reserves of highly enriched uranium and plutonium amounted to approximately 2,300 tons (enough to fabricate 200,000 nuclear bombs).20 This material is stored in hundreds of buildings in more than 40 countries, with security ranging from "excellent" in some places to "horrible" in others.21

The Belfer Center, in its report Securing the Bomb 2010, declares that all countries must urgently adopt clear norms that are enforced correctly, in order to provide protection from threats against nuclear security.22


Stealing an active nuclear bomb

Firstly, they could possibly steal an active nuclear bomb. This option seems rather unlikely, given that nuclear weapons are placed under protection of the armed forces and are often held under strict security controls, with the exception of the case of Pakistan, which was mentioned earlier. Nevertheless, a group could acquire a nuclear weapon by taking advantage of lapses in vigilance, especially during transportation between different destinations, or by taking advantage of an accident. Let us remember two cases in which it could have been possible. The first one took place in August 2007 in the USA, when a bomber responsible for transporting missiles without nuclear heads was given – supposedly by mistake – six missiles with nuclear heads. The aircraft flew to its destination and the missiles were left on the airfield for more than 24 hoursi. And the second one is the incident in Palomares, where, in 1966, four nuclear bombs fell from a plane which was re-fuelling in the airii. Three of the bombs were found and recovered within a few hours, but the fourth one was not recovered until 80 days after the accident. In both cases, a group might have taken advantage of the situation in order to acquire one of those nuclear weapons. Therefore, although this option is believed to be highly unlikely, it should not be ruled out.

The report from the Belfer Center has warned that Pakistan is the country more likely to be attacked by an extremist group (Islamic, states the report) who would want to obtain a nuclear weapon; that would be a result of the country’s weak security measures. Experts indicate that the danger has increased due to the arms race between India and Pakistan. Some incidents at Pakistani nuclear facilities have already been mentioned. Therefore, we must believe that stealing a nuclear weapon is not just a theoretical possibility, but a rather real threat.


Building a bomb

The construction of a nuclear bomb requires a certain level of sophistication in the design, on the one hand, and the availability of the appropriate fissile material (highly enriched – above 90% – plutonium or uranium) in a large enough quantity to guarantee a nuclear explosion, on the other. Building a reliable, compact and efficient nuclear bomb – such as those held by nuclear states – or one that can be mounted on a missile represents a significant technological challenge. However, constructing a homemade nuclear bomb, without all the sophistications required for the weapons held by nuclear states, is achievable for any engineer interested in the topic. The greatest difficulty a non-state group wanting to build a nuclear bomb could face would be obtaining the highly enriched plutonium or uranium necessary to guarantee an explosion. Of the numerous cases of the previously mentioned nuclear smuggling, some were related to highly enriched uranium and plutonium. It should not be forgotten, therefore, that a terrorist group could obtain or steal sufficient material to build a nuclear bomb.

In all likelihood, the most accessible option for a terrorist group would be a construction of a dirty bomb. A dirty bomb is a conventional bomb which releases radioactive material, and its construction does not involve any great technological complexities. The main problem would lie in obtaining the needed radioactive material. A bomb of this type does not need highly enriched uranium or plutonium. It would be enough to equip the bomb with any kind of radioactive chemical (cesium-137, cobolt-60, iridium0192, strontium-90, uranium or plutonium). As such, it would not produce a nuclear explosion on the scale of Hiroshima, but the release of the radioactive material would cause a hugely wide-reaching humanitarian and environmental disaster, similar to those of Chernobyl and Fukushima which, even without a nuclear explosion, caused catastrophes on a huge scale.

The radioactive material needed to make a dirty bomb can be obtained from the spent fuel from nuclear electric power production plants, which is stored in refrigeration pools situated within the plant itself, or in temporary radioactive material storage centres. Transport of the radioactive material from the plant of origin to the storage facility provides a relatively easy opportunity for non-state groups to obtain radioactive material. Nuclear reactors in medical appliances employ radioactive materials of a higher purity than those utilized in nuclear electric power production plants, and could also be used in building a dirty bomb.


4. Attack on a nuclear centre

An attack on a nuclear electric power production plant could cause a radioactive leak and consequently an environmental, human and economic disaster on a scale similar to that of an explosion of a nuclear bomb (not counting the immediate effect of the explosion). The two most vulnerable parts are the nuclear reactor at the plant and the spent fuel storage pools.

The nuclear reactor container in the nuclear electric power production plants is constructed in such a way as to sustain an impact from a commercial jet. However, a study by the Argonne National Laboratory demonstrates that the building of the reactor container would struggle to cope with the fire caused by spilt fueliii. Therefore, it is possible that an attack could damage not only the reactor building, but also the protection of the reactor container, which would cause a radioactive leak and a nuclear disaster on a huge scale.

It would bring about a similar disaster through the disruption of the back-up services of the reactor, such as the refrigeration of the reactor. The accident in Fukushima was ultimately due to the disruption to the electrical system which controlled the refrigeration system for the reactors.

But it is not necessary to destroy the protection of the nuclear reactor in order to cause an atomic disaster. Nuclear fuel, once spent, is highly radioactive. For this reason it has to be stored in large pools within the nuclear plant itself, with the aim of reducing its radioactivity. The destruction of these pools would release into the atmosphere some part of the said radioactive material and have environmental, health, human and economic repercussions.

Nuclear electric power production plants have not been immune to protest activity. Recentlyiv, in 2012, a Greenpeace activist flew over the Bugey plant (France) in a parameterv and dropped a flare on the top of the reactor building. Another activist entered the Civaux plant (France) and remained hidden on the premises for an hour. In 2011, a group of activists entered the Confrentes nuclear plant (Valencian Country) at dawn, reached as far as the refrigeration tower, where they painted the message “peligro nuclear” [nuclear danger], and remained there until four o’clock in the afternoon until being arrestedvi. In 2003, 30 activists entered the Sizewell plant (United Kingdom)vii. Previously, in 2002, 40 activists disrupted the Zorita plant (Spain), six of whom reached the reactorviii. In 2001, 30 activists entered the nuclear plant in Australiaix. The list of peaceful occupation of nuclear plants goes on, these are just some examples. These actions show how vulnerable nuclear plants really are: if activists can enter a plant to denounce the use of nuclear energy and sparse security measures at these facilities without too much difficulty, some other groups, those with different goals, could do the same.

On the other hand, non-state actors have carried out several attacks on nuclear plants, none of which caused a radioactive leakx. In 1973 there was an attack on a nuclear Argentinian plant in Lima, when it was still unfinished. In 1977, ETA detonated several bombs which damaged the tray of the reactor at the plant that was being built at Arminza (Euskadi). In 1982 four anti-tank rockets were fired against the reactor in construction at Malville (France), resulting in its damage. Also in 1982, the plant in development at Melkbosstrand in South Africa was attacked.

However, also state actors have attacked nuclear facilities in various countries. Iraq has suffered several attacks against its nuclear facilities. During the war between Iran and Iraq in 1980-88, Iran bombed Iraqi nuclear installations. In 1981, Israel bombed the almost-complete reactor in Osirak, close to Baghdad. And in 1991 and 2003 it was the USA who attacked Iraqi nuclear facilities. The Israeli authorities had argued that Syria could build a nuclear bombxi, and, in 2007, Israel attacked the Syrian nuclear plant at al-Kibar. It seems that North Korea helped Syria in the construction of that reactorxii. If any of those reactors under attack had been full of fuel and functioning, there would have been an atomic disaster

The Nuclear Threat initiative assessed different countries in addressing the security conditions at their nuclear stores. It ranked 32 states, those which have, at least, 2.2 lbs. of highly enriched uranium or plutonium. North Korea came in last place, behind Pakistan, Iran and Vietnam, which has a research reactor. In front of those were India, China and Israel. The highest-ranked country was Australiaxiii.

All these incidents demonstrate that the current nuclear plants can suffer attacks and that their protection and security measures are not enough to avoid a planned attack. We should bear in mind that nowadays – at the beginning of 2013 – there are 413 nuclear reactors in function which are connected to the electricity grid of 30 countries (according to the data from the International Atomic Energy Agencyxiv). Therefore, the likelihood of an attack on a nuclear plant is high.


5. The consequences of a nuclear attack

If the nuclear explosion were to take place in an urban area, as was the case in Hiroshima and in Nagasaki, the consequences would be terrible. The US Department of Homeland Security has estimated that the damage caused by a 10 kT bomb (similar to that dropped on Hiroshima)23 dropped on Washington would kill between 15,000 and 30,000 people immediately, would injure or kill more than 200,000 people from exposure to radiation in the short term and cause 50,000 cancer cases, of which 25,000 would be fatal due to radiation exposure over time24. The explosion of a 300 kT bomb in London’s Trafalgar Square on a weekday could result in 240,000 dead and 420,000 wounded25.

Another article26 calculates the consequences of the explosion of a 12.5 kT nuclear bomb in New York’s port. The blast and thermal effects would result in 52,000 immediate deaths, and 44,000 cases of illness caused by direct radiation, of which 10,000 could result in death. The radioactive cloud could kill 200,000 people and cause many hundreds of thousands of cases of disease. In an attack of this type, help for the survivors would be very limited. Around 1,000 hospital beds would be destroyed and 8,700 would be exposed to radiation. Medical facilities would easily become overwhelmed.

The attack on a nuclear power plant could cause a situation similar to that suffered by the population and the environment as a result of the Fukushima or Chernobyl nuclear disasters. In Fukushima, the tsunami caused a radiation leak from the reactors which forced the authorities to establish a 20 km radius safety zone, and evacuate all the people living within that area (about 200,000). Significant radioactive discharges into the sea and the atmosphere were produced which caused massive radioactive contamination of animals and plants. However, as is always the case with incidents related to nuclear energy, the consequences are not only short term. For example a recent WHO report states that the risk of thyroid cancer over the lifetime of girls who were exposed to radiation is 70% higher than among those who were not exposed27.

The 1986 nuclear accident at the Chernobyl plant was ranked at level 7 (the maximum on the International Nuclear Event Scale), as was the Fukushima accident. The accident was caused by the overheating of the reactor core leading to a radioactive leak which, it is estimated, was about 200 times the radiation resulting from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The consequences of the disaster were huge. Some 135,000 people were evacuated. Today, there is still a 30 km radius exclusion zone around the nuclear plant. The Chernobyl Forum (a group of UN agencies) states that the catastrophe has caused around 9,000 deaths and nearly 200,000 illnesses; other organizations state higher figures. To date, the Ukrainian government has spent more than $12 billion on dealing with the consequences of the accident at the plant28,29.

Clearly the explosion of an atomic bomb - in addition to loss of life and the consequences on the health of the population in the short, medium and long term (deaths and injuries that affect hundreds of thousands of people) - would have enormous social and economic consequences. And from the economic standpoint, the costs of radioactive cleaning and decontamination would be enormous. The reconstruction work would be an enormous task. To this we must add the impact on the environment in the short, medium and long term.


6. International action to combat nuclear terrorism

By The United Nations
In 2001, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1373 in which it determined that states should prevent and suppress acts of terrorism. In 2004, it adopted resolution 1540 which focuses on the terrorist threat from non-state actors and issues a series of measures with which states must comply to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological terrorism. It calls upon states to adopt measures to ensure compliance with international treaties, and stresses the need for international cooperation to combat terrorism.

There are currently 16 legal instruments for combating terrorism. One such instrument is the "International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism", which was adopted in 2005 and came into force in 2007. Currently, 71 states have signed up to it. The Convention covers a wide range of events and potential terrorist targets, including nuclear power plants. It encourages states to cooperate in prevention through the exchange of information and through mutual assistance in criminal investigations. It also includes both crisis situations (assisting states to solve the situation) and post-crisis situations (through the International Atomic Energy Agency).

In 2005, the Secretary General of the UN created the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) to coordinate and bring coherence to the UN’s counter-terrorism activities. The CTITF has different working groups, including one for the prevention of attacks involving weapons of mass destruction. It was established to strengthen the exchange of information and knowledge among different organizations related to the response to terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction.


By the International Atomic Energy Agency
In March 2002, the IAEA launched its first comprehensive program to combat the risk of nuclear terrorism, helping states to strengthen their nuclear security. In September 2009, the Board of Governors approved a new Nuclear Security Plan30 for 2010-2013. The new plan prioritizes advice on the implementation of international instruments; the development of guidelines and documents; the review and assessment of needs; the provision of support to states for implementing the nuclear security recommendations; and the disclosure and exchange of information.


The Obama Summits
In April 2009, President Obama announced in his famous speech in Prague that he wanted to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, reduce nuclear arsenals and secure nuclear materials. To that end, heads of state would be called on to reach agreements to combat the threat of terrorist groups or criminals obtaining nuclear materials. The main objective of the summit would be to secure stocks of nuclear material that could be stolen, and to strengthen international cooperation to combat trafficking in nuclear materials and technology.

 In May 2010, the first summit was held in Washington, where leaders from 47 states and the IAEA met. All states possessing nuclear weapons were represented except North Korea. Of the states that have nuclear technology, the absence of Iran was notable. It was surprising that these two states were not present at the meeting if the real purpose was collaboration among all nuclear states. Two years later, another summit was held in Seoul. In this case 53 heads of state and international organizations participated, without the presence of Iran or North Korea. It is anticipated that a third summit will be held in the Netherlands in 2014.

In the final conclusions of both summits,31,32 the good intentions of all participants in working for nuclear disarmament, nuclear non-proliferation and the peaceful use of nuclear energy are reaffirmed, collaboration between them is requested and the lead role of the UN and IAEA is recognized.

In short, the summit resolutions are reduced to very generic intentions in line with the usual documents of different international organizations. It gives the impression that the summits seek to strengthen the leading role of the US, and in particular President Obama, in managing the nuclear issue.


Other initiatives
The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) is an association of states and international organizations whose objective is to prevent, detect and respond to international terrorism. The states and organizations voluntarily commit to implementing the principles of GICNT. Currently, 85 states and four official observers are part of the GICNT (the European Union, the International Atomic Energy Agency, Interpol and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime). The US and Russia are co-chairs. The evaluation and implementation group of the GICNT considers that nuclear detection and forensics are top priorities. The GICNT recognizes the role that the IAEA can play in the achievement of their goals.


Project Vinca: collaboration is possible
In 1948, the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences was founded near Belgrade. The institute had two nuclear research reactors operating with uranium enriched to 2%, but in 1976 the two reactors were modified and used highly enriched uranium. One of the reactors was suspended in 1984, while the other remained operational33. In 2002, there were 48kg of highly enriched uranium, enough to make several nuclear bombs. Security conditions were poor and US officials believed that this material could be stolen by terrorists. To resolve the situation, the Nuclear Security Project, the Department of Defense in the USA, the IAEA, Serbia and Russia worked together to transfer this material to a safe place in Russia for disposal. Project Vinca is presented as a model of cooperation to protect nuclear material34.


7. What we can do

Given the situation outlined above regarding the dangers associated with nuclear terrorism, the question we ask ourselves is “what should we do?” Within the logic of the present system, the answer is quite clear. The objective would be to increase the security measures at the stores of radioactive materials and of both civilian and military nuclear facilities. At the same time, monitoring of the movements of nuclear materials or devices should be increased; monitoring which should be performed by a number of states and international organizations. Thus, presumably, the radioactive material would be prevented from falling into the wrong hands and the facilities would be safe from possible attack. In fact, all international agreements are moving in this direction: policies to achieve greater security and concentration of decision-making in the hands of a few states.

It seems reasonable: when facing danger it is necessary to react with corrective measures which reduce that danger. But isn’t there another option? We believe so. Terrorism must be tackled with policy measures that provide solutions to its root causes. These policy measures should be complemented by the total elimination of nuclear weapons and the elimination of nuclear energy as a source of power generation (two historical demands, the first from the peace movement and the second from the environmental movement).

After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, people around the world became aware of the danger posed by nuclear weapons. The actions, protests and campaigns against nuclear weapons multiplied around the globe. At the end of the Cold War, with the collapse and break-up of the USSR, it seemed that states could begin to dismantle their nuclear arsenals. While there was indeed a reduction of stockpiles, the nuclear danger remains huge. Today, it is estimated that there are over 20,000 active nuclear weapons which pose an immediate threat. In 1995 several experts prepared a draft international convention for the elimination of nuclear bombs that resulted in an international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons35. In the 2010 revision of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), 130 states called for a convention that would lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons. It was not approved; those states which have nuclear weapons and are party to the NPT, except China, have resisted this convention.

The elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide, as well as avoiding their use by states that have them, would represent savings in the states’ defense spending; funds that could be re-directed to meet the needs of the population. And on the other hand, in a world without nuclear weapons, it would be impossible for a terrorist group to get hold of them.

As outline above, it seems clear that one of the greatest dangers associated with nuclear terrorism is that a group carries out a conventional attack on a nuclear power plant. This attack does not have to be aimed at the reactor: the objective may be one of the most accessible elements, such as the pools where spent fuel is stored or even the facilities that supply power for the operation of the reactor’s cooling systems, causing a disaster similar to Fukushima. Clearly, if there were no nuclear plants, an attack of this type would not be possible and there would be no consequence.

The closure of nuclear power plants has been demanded by the environmental movement for many years. Other people and groups with a desire for more sustainable electricity production systems are joining this demand. For many years, the nuclear lobby tried to convince us that the nuclear option was the only option (recently they have been telling us that it is also ecological) to maintain our quality of life. Fortunately the nuclear option has fewer followers and to the people (if not to governments) it is clear that the alternative is a reduction in energy expenditure, and energy production using renewable and sustainable systems of production.

Thus, the closure of nuclear power plants would, on the one hand, meet the aspirations of a large section of the population to have cleaner sources of electricity and, on the other hand, prevent them being used as targets in terrorist attacks, with catastrophic consequences.

A world without nuclear weapons and without nuclear power plants would minimize the threat of nuclear terrorism. It would only be necessary to ensure the safe removal of the radioactive materials used in medical applications. In this situation, it would be very difficult to collect a large enough quantity of radioactive material to cause a nuclear disaster.



1 Data extracted from P. Pierart; D'Hiroshima a Sarajevo: La bombe, la guerre froide et l'armée européenne, Editions EPO (1995). Included in the article “Effects of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 59 years later”; Boletín armas contra la guerra, núm. 50 (Bulletin of weapons against war No. 50). Accessible at: http://www.nodo50.org/tortuga/Efectos-de-las-bombas-atomicas-de


2 Tilman Ruff; Nuclear Terrorism, Fact sheet 10, November 2006. energyscience.org.au


3 Matthew Bunn; The Harvard Project on Managing the Atom; Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. April 2000. http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/fullnextwave.pdf


4 Vikran Dodd; “Al-Qaida plotting nuclear attack on UK, officials warn”, The Guardian, 14 November 2006.


5 C. Hope, R. Winnet, H. Watt and H. Blake; “WikiLeaks: Guantanamo Bay terrorist secret revealed”, The Telegraph, 25 April 2011.


6 “Feds Hoped to Snag Bin Laden Nuke Expert in JFK Bomb Plot”, Fox News, June 04, 2007.


7 Micah Zenko; “A nuclear site is breached”, The Washington Post, December 20, 2007.


8 Chidanand Rajghata; “Jihadist thrice attacked Pakistan nuclear sites”, The Times of India, Aug 11, 2009.


9 S. Mulvey; “Could terrorists get hold of a nuclear bomb?”, BBC News, April 12, 2010.


10 Salman Masood and David E. Sanger; “Pakistan’s Military Faces New Questions After Raid”; The New York Times, May 23, 2011.


11 Shaun Gregory; “The Terrorist Threat to Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons”, CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2009, Vol 2 . Issue 7, p. 1-4.


12 J. Borger; “Pakistan nuclear weapons at risk of theft by terrorists, US study warns”, The Guardian, April 12, 2010.


13 Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, “Nightmares of nuclear terrorism”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March-April 2010, 37-45. The author of the article was the Director of Intelligence at the Department of Energy of the United States and a CIA official.


14 S. Mulvey; “Could terrorists get hold of a nuclear bomb?”, BBC News, April 12, 2010.


15 Paul K. Kerr and Mary Beth Nikitin; Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation and Security Issues, Congressional Research Service, RL34248, May 10, 2012. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/nuke/RL34248.pdf


16 Bruce Lawlor; “The Black Sea: Center of the nuclear black market”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November-December 2011; vol. 67, no. 6, pp. 73-80.


17 Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, “Nightmares of nuclear terrorism”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March-April 2010, vol. 66, no. 2, pp. 37-45.


18 The International Institute for Strategic Studies. Nuclear Black Markets: Pakistan, A.Q. Khan and the rise of proliferation networks. IISS Strategic Dossier


19 IAEA, Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) Factsheet. http://www-ns.iaea.org/downloads/security/itdb-fact-sheet.pdf


20 Albright D, Kramer K.; Global stocks of nuclear explosive materials. Washington DC, Institute for Science and International Security, 2005.


21 Bunn M, Wier A.; «Terrorist nuclear weapon construction: how difficult?» Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 2006; 607 (Sep):133-49.


22 Bunn, Matthew; Securing the Bomb 2010. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. April 2010. www.nti.org/securingthebomb


23 Nuclear bombs of existing arsenals each have a destructive power of between 100 and 5,000 kT. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a power of 16 kT and 25 kT, respectively. i.e. the average power of today’s nuclear bombs is about 200 times higher than that of those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


24 US Dept. of Homeland Security, National Planning Scenarios, Scenario 1, 2005.


25 G. Evans and Y. Kawaguchi. Eliminating Nuclear Threats, International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament. 2009. www.icnnd.org


26 Ira Helfand, Lachlan Forrow, Jaya Tiwari; “Nuclear terrorism”, British Medical Journal, February 9, 2002; Vol. 324, Issue 7333; pp. 356-358


27 José Reinoso, “La OMS alerta de que habrá más casos de cáncer cerca de Fukushima” (WHO warns that there will be more cases of cancer near Fukushima), El País, February 28, 2013. http://sociedad.elpais.com/sociedad/2013/02/28/actualidad/1362047475_722444.html



29 O. Auyezov and R. Balmforth; In Chernobyl, a disaster persists. Reuters, Special Report, March 2011. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/15/us-chernobyl-disaster-persists-idUSTRE72E5CT20110315



31 Communiqué of the Washington Nuclear Security Summit. The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/communiqu-washington-nuclear-security-summit


33 Philipp C. Bleek; “Project Vinca: Lessons for Securing Civil Nuclear Material Stockpiles”, The Nonproliferation Review. Fall-Winter 2003.


34Fact Sheet, August 23, 2002. Office of the Spokesman. US Department of State. http://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2002/12962.htm



35 ICAN, International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons. http://www.icanw.org/


i Nazemroaya, Mahdi Darius; «Missing Nukes: Treason of the Highest Order», Global Research, October 29, 2007


ii See for example: “Un bombardero y un avión nodriza norteamericanos chocan en pleno vuelo”; La Vanguardia, 18 de enero de 1966


iii Ira Helfand, Lachlan Forrow, Jaya Tiwari; “Nuclear terrorism”, British Medical Journal, 9 February 2002; Vol. 324, Issue 7333; pp. 356-358.


iv “Greenpeace irrumpe por tierra y aire en dos centrales”; El País, 3 mayo 2012, p.4. Also: Justin McKeating; “Greenpeace once again exposes security failures at French nuclear reactors”, May 2, 2012. http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/nuclear-reaction/greenpeace-once-again-exposes-security-failur/blog/40213/


v A paramotor is an adaptation of a paraglider in which the pilot wears a motor on their back.


vi  Ignacio Zafra; “Greenpeace burla la seguridad de Cofrentes”, El País, 16 febrero 2011.


vii  “Protesters 'breached Sizewell security'”, BBC News. Friday, 28 February, 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/2808015.stm


viii  Inmaculada Gómez Mardones; “Greenpeace asalta la central de Zorita y pone en evidencia su seguridad”, El País, 26 abril 2002.


ix  “Greenpeace raid on Australian nuclear reactor”, ABC News, Tuesday, 18 December 2001. http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2001/12/18/443080.htm


x  Barnaby, F.; Nuclear Terrorism. In Taipale I (ed.); War or health? London, Zed Books, 2001: 164-172. Citado en Tilman Ruff; Nuclear Terrorism. Fact sheet 10, November 2006. energyscience.org.au


xi  D. Gartenstein-Ross and J. D. Goodman; The Attack on Syria's al-Kibar Nuclear Facility. inFocus Spring 2009, Vol. III: Num. 1. Jewish Policy Center


xii  Mark Tran ; “US claims video shows North Korea helped build Syrian reactor”, The Guardian, 24 April 2008. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/apr/24/usa.korea


xiii  Julian Borger; “India, China and Israel ranked among the world’s worst for nuclear security”. Global Security Blog: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/julian-borger-global-security-blog/2012/jan/11/israel-nuclear-weapons


xiv  International Atomic Energy Agency: http://www.iaea.org/pris/ y European Nuclear Society: http://www.euronuclear.org/info/encyclopedia/n/nuclear-power-plant-world-wide.htm



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