NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Thinking About a Terrorist Nuclear Doomsday

May 30, 2002

Prior to Sept. 11, most Americans were probably aware of the possibility of a nuclear device being smuggled into a U.S. city and detonated -- but we didn't want to think about it. Post-Sept. 11, we have no choice. Public debate now centers on whether it will be a "dirty" bomb or something even more horrific.

  • Eight countries are known to have nuclear weapons -- the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan and Israel -- with Russia responsible for some 15,000 of the world's estimated 25,000 warheads.
  • Russia is also notorious for its sloppy weapons accounting, a disgruntled military, an audacious black market and indigenous terrorists.
  • Russia's supply of tactical nuclear warheads poses perhaps the largest concern -- because their smaller size makes them ideal candidates for theft and there appears to be no reliable count of just how many there are, with estimates ranging from 4,000 to as high as 30,000.
  • It seems almost inevitable that terrorists will one day gain access to some of these tactical warheads, if they have not already done so -- and from there, delivery to U.S. targets could be the easiest part of the job, with 2,000 shipping containers entering our seaports every hour.

The radioactive heart of a dirty bomb -- which would not cause a nuclear explosion, but would spread radioactive matter using conventional explosives -- could also be spent fuel from a nuclear reactor or isotopes separated out in the process of refining nuclear fuel.

So Russian sources aside, there is no shortage of materials that could be candidates for a terrorist doomsday project, experts warn.

Source: Bill Keller, "Nuclear Nightmares," New York Times Magazine, May 26, 2002.


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