Nuclear terrorismNuclear summit focuses on terrorist nukes

Published 28 March 2012

The Seoul nuclear summit focused on the risk of nuclear terrorism; there are two risks: first, fissile materials, which terrorists may use to construct a dirty bomb, is kept at thousands of medical, research, and industrial facilities around the world – often without sufficient security; second, constructing a Hiroshima-type bomb is not as difficult as we may think

Plenary session of the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit // Source:

This past Tuesday, nearly sixty of the world’s leaders gathered in Seoul, South Korea, to discuss securing the world’s supply of nuclear material.

The discussions involved the risk of a terrorist attack using radioactive material, but the focus was beyond the risk of radiological, or “dirty,” bomb. A dirty bomb is composed of ordinary explosives packaged in radioactive material, such as is used in medical and industrial purposes. These devices spread radioactive material over a large area, rendering those areas unusable until thoroughly cleared of radioactive contamination.

The Seoul nuclear summit had a greater, more threatening concern. That concern had to do with securing and accounting for fissile material, the core material for a nuclear device.

There are two main concerns in this discussion.

First, an accounting of and securing of all fissile material scattered at various locations around the world. There are especially keen worries about the safety of fissile materials in the former Soviet states, North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, and India.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of its former member states, including Russia, sought to gain income from the sale of nuclear material.

Others, notably Iran and North Korea, have been active players in the nuclear proliferation game. Pakistan, though it maintains tight control of its nuclear stockpile, has at least part of the guardianship of nuclear material under the control of the ISI, its intelligence service, which has long been suspected of jihadist sympathies, and even direct connections with organizations such as al Qaeda.

Pakistan is also the home of Dr. A. Q. Khan, a top Pakistani nuclear scientist who – on his own or with the tacit blessings of elements in the Pakistani regime – was active in selling nuclear materials, enrichment centrifuge designs, and nuclear warhead blueprints to Libya and Iran.  

Other nations, even if not hostile to the West or active in proliferation programs, such as India, are not regarded to have tight enough control over their stockpiles of fissile material.

New Delhi insists that its nuclear stockpile is under tight control, but according to the Washington Post, India is among the top five nuclear security risks, requiring tighter control, more transparency, and greater security for nuclear materials in transit.

The Post reports that there have been at least two incidents in recent years in which supposedly secure nuclear material ended up in a scrap dealer’s shop.

When we think of nuclear weapons, we think of sophisticated weapons and delivery systems requiring complex and difficult to engineer triggering mechanisms.

It bears remembering that Little Boy, the device detonated over Hiroshima, used  a relatively crude and simple triggering device.

In Little Boy, the fissile material was separated by a distance of about three meters, half of it being a target mass, and the other being a uranium “bullet.”

At detonation, an explosive charge accelerated the nuclear bullet toward the uranium target, allowing it to achieve critical mass, which initiated the chain reaction that resulted in the explosion.

The design, considered by modern standards to be inefficient in terms of energy release, is relatively easy to construct, particularly on a small scale, and would allow the terrorists employing such a device to achieve their two main goals: a dramatic display of the ability to deliver mass damage and death relatively easily, and the ability to construct and detonate such a device in comparatively inconspicuous ways.

This returns to the necessity of securing the world’s supply of uranium and plutonium such that it cannot fall into the hands of the world’s bad actors.

The Washington Post quotes Kenneth Luongo, cochair of the Washington-based Filssile Materials Working Group, as stressing that “There needs to be more political leadership from the top, and countries need to stop talking about what they’re doing individually and acknowledge that this is a cross-border international issue.”