The Risk Of Nuclear Terrorism — And Next Steps To Reduce The Danger

| April 2, 2008

Committee On Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, United States Senate

Dr. Matthew Bunn’s testimony to Committee On Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the United States Senate urges a global campaign to ensure that every nuclear weapon and every cache of potential nuclear bomb material worldwide is secured against the kinds of threats terrorists and criminals have demonstrated they can pose.

The testimony includes the following topics and recommendations:

Nuclear Terrorism Risks: The Bad News

  • Several basic questions can give us an understanding of the risk of nuclear terrorism.
  • Do terrorists want nuclear weapons?
  • Is it plausible that a sophisticated terrorist group could make a crude nuclear bomb if they got HEU or separated plutonium
  • Could a terrorist group plausibly get the material needed for a nuclear bomb?
  • Could a terrorist group likely deliver a bomb to Washington, New York, or other major cities around the world
  • What would happen if terrorists set off a nuclear bomb in a U.S. city?

Nuclear Terrorism Risks: The Good News

  • First, there is no convincing evidence that any terrorist group has yet gotten a nuclear weapon or the materials needed to make one.
  • Second, making and delivering even a crude nuclear bomb would be the most technically challenging and complex operation any terrorist group has ever carried out.
  • Third, the overthrow of the Taliban and the disruption of al Qaeda's old central command structure certainly reduced al Qaeda's chances of pulling off such a complex.
  • Fourth, nuclear security is improving.
  • Finally hostile states are highly unlikely to consciously choose to provide nuclear weapons or the materials needed to make them to terrorist groups.

Next Steps to Reduce the Risk

  • Secure all the caches
  • Develop Effective standards
  • Ensure security upgrades that work, and that last
  • Take steps beyond nuclear security
  • Many security steps within the United States are possible
    • Converting U.S. HEU-fueled reactors and upgrading their security.
    • Providing incentives to convert HEU medical isotope production.
    • Closing the DOE-NRC security gap.
    • Security against nuclear sabotage.
    • Security for radiological materials.
    • A strengthened nuclear forensics effort.
    • A modified approach to cargo scanning.
    • Stopping smuggling beyond official points of entry.
    • Improved preparedness for the aftermath of an attack
  • Leadership and commitment
  • Joint threat briefings
  • Nuclear terrorism exercises and war games
  • Fast-paced nuclear security reviews.
  • Realistic testing of nuclear security performance.
  • Shared databases of threats and incidents.
For more information on this publication: Please contact Managing the Atom
For Academic Citation: Bunn, Matthew. “The Risk Of Nuclear Terrorism — And Next Steps To Reduce The Danger.” Testimony to United States Senate, Committee On Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Washington, DC, April 2, 2008.

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