NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Risks of Terrorist Nuke Small

December 27, 2002

The risk of terrorists acquiring a nuclear bomb and detonating it inside a large metropolitan area is very small, according to one nuclear expert. Most likely, terrorists could produce only a crude nuclear device, fashioned with imperfect technology from less than optimum material, writes Dr. Theodore Liolios, of the Hellenic Merchant Marine Academy in Greece.

  • They would be in much the same situation as the original nuclear bomb makers in Los Alamos, who really didn't know whether their first practice bomb would blow up or not.
  • Consequently, the likelihood of a terrorist bomb leveling a city is pretty low.
  • "The most likely scenario," Dr. Liolios writes, "is that the terrorists will achieve either a nominal yield or no yield at all."

Still, even a radioactive fizzle is something to be feared.

  • The conventional explosives used for igniting a nuclear blast (perhaps a couple dozen to a couple hundred pounds of TNT) would produce considerable damage on their own.
  • That blast would spew radioactive material into the air, contaminating nearby land and exposing many people to high doses of radiation.
  • Predicting the effects of such a blast isn't simple, though, because the ultimate outcome depends on so many different details -- especially if terrorists choose a time and weather conditions that maximize the damage.

In Washington, D.C., for example, a fizzle might cause an extra 10,000 cancer deaths over the subsequent 50 years. Bad as it sounds, three-quarters of a million people in the D.C. area will die of cancer during that time, anyway. So the fizzle bomb would raise the cancer rate by about 1.3 percent - too small to be noticed had it occurred from a less visible cause.

Source: Tom Siegfried, "Nuclear Device Details Might Deter Terrorists," Dallas Morning News, December 9, 2002.


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