Nuclear Terrorism – What is the actual threat?

Utter the phrase nuclear terrorism and most people would automatically envisage a bright flash, followed by a mushroom cloud rising over a scorched earth. It is an issue that steps into the stage light every now and then, cause some frightening headlines, only to then disappear into the quagmire of issues that are not ‘newsworthy’ enough. Nuclear terrorism is, like all issues connected to the word nuclear, fraught with misconceptions, myths and even outright lies. It is high time that some light is spread over this in order to separate myths from facts, thus enabling a truly informed debate regarding this substantial threat.

This time around it was The Daily Telegraph that decided that the issue should be brought back to the public sphere, after a couple of raids conducted by the FBI and the authorities of Moldova. With the headline ‘Russian gangs trying to sell radioactive material to Isil terrorists in Moldova’ they tell the story of terrorists and other, well, less honest characters, attempt to sell nuclear ‘material’ to the Islamic State. At face value this seems to be an absolute nightmare given the astonishing brutality shown by the murderous Islamic organisation and one does not have to engage one’s fantasy a great deal to imagine them using of such weapons. However, these sensationalist headlines only tell half the truth.

The main concern is not that IS would manage to procure a nuclear device from the Soviet era, for a very simple reason. Given the technology and design features of a nuclear bomb, be that a conventional fission bomb or a thermonuclear device, a nuclear warhead from the 1980’s might well not even be usable. The radioactive core will have shifted in composition due to natural decay (hence the need for regular maintenance and ‘topping up’ of nuclear material in weapons) thus rendering it useless from a detonation point of view. This, however, does not mean that it is not still lethal in the wrong hands. The radioactive material inside the bomb could still be withdrawn from the bomb itself and be converted to a so called dirty bomb (conventional explosives mixed with radioactive material) which could wreck havoc. This is the worst case scenario we would be facing.

Nuclear material can, if one were determined, be readily disguised making detection of such material very hard. The largest source for material that could be used for dirty doxycycline online order bombs is still the former USSR region, where nuclear material was left unguarded and unaccounted for with the fall of the Soviet regime. Some is likely to have been lost, but a significant amount is likely to be circulating on the more shadowy markets of the world. Most terror organisations do not posses the resources necessary, especially monetary, to procure quantities that are large enough to pose a significant threat. IS is different as this is an organisation with significant resources at its disposal.

It is therefore essential that the international community continues with its cooperation against nuclear terrorism, with police and intelligence cooperation across borders, as seen in Moldova. IS can, and probably will, attempt to gain access to nuclear material, if it does not already have it. Whether or not is would deploy such tactics is secondary. The main ‘benefit’ from their point of view would be the psychological effect that it would have on the West. It would provide them with a weapon of terror that could be used to subdue its adversaries locally and threaten actors such as the US, the UK and Russia with nuclear attacks on their home front.

However, the likelihood remains low of such events taking place. Procurement, handling and storage of nuclear material is not easy for an organisation that is constantly on the move, such as IS and the resources that would need to use on getting nuclear material is more likely to be efficient if spent on conventional weaponry.

In conclusion, the alarmist headlines surrounding nuclear terrorism, whilst containing large sections of truth, are by and large just that, alarmist. It is important that we maintain a watchful eye on the nuclear stockpiles but more importantly, organisations with the financial capacity to procure nuclear material on the black markets. IS could well gain access to said material and attempt to create a dirty bomb. If that were to become reality, we must brace for the worst, however in the meantime it is essential to separate myths from facts. The risk of a rogue organisation staging an attack with a nuclear bomb is endlessly small and the likelihood of a terror organisation assembling a dirty bomb is low, plausible yes, but low. International cooperation is the key, and recent events in Moldova has shown that so far the system seems to be operational.

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John Lindberg 32 Articles
John Lindberg is a former policy adviser to Sir Jamie McGrigor MSP and a self-declared science geek. His main interests are energy and environmental issues, with a burning passion for nuclear power. He recently graduated with a First from the University of Glasgow, MA (Hons) in Politics.

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