Essay: Nuclear Terrorism

Success in preventing nuclear terrorism requires numerous actions across a wide array of fronts.13 A multilayered defense strategy provides a comprehensive and balanced approach to stopping nuclear terrorism. Such a strategy involves disrupting and destroying terrorist cells, blocking terrorists from the sources of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials, developing and deploying radiation detection equipment, and improving intelligence assessments of when and where terrorists will launch a nuclear attack. Once terrorists acquire nuclear arms, however, stopping detonation of these weapons is exceedingly difficult. The radiation emitted by a nuclear weapon is hard to detect and easy to shield. In addition, pinpointing the time and location of a terrorist attack stretches the limits of intelligence assessments. Identifying and eradicating terrorist cells is also extremely challenging.
Although reducing the growth of terrorist groups is vitally important for the United States to have success in the wider ‘war on terrorism,’ no matter how many terrorists there are, they cannot launch a nuclear attack without access to weapons-usable nuclear materials or intact nuclear weapons. Consequently, securing and eliminating vulnerable nuclear materials and weapons offer points of greatest leverage in preventing nuclear terrorism. For these activities, much more national and international action is urgently needed to address the problems of Pakistan’s highly enriched uranium and nuclear arsenal; Russia’s highly enriched uranium; highly enriched uranium at more than one hundred civilian facilities in dozens of countries; and tactical nuclear weapons. Here, the focus is on how to block terrorists from acquiring these vulnerable nuclear materials and weapons.
Preventing nuclear terrorism is also closely connected to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons to other countries. By reducing the number of countries with nuclear weapons or weapons-usable nuclear materials, terrorists will have fewer places to buy or steal these critical components of nuclear terrorism. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is at the forefront of multilateral efforts to inspect nuclear facilities to try to detect diversion of weapons-usable nuclear materials. Presently, 650 IAEA inspectors are responsible for inspecting nine hundred nuclear facilities in ninety-one countries. The annual budget of the IAEA is about $120 million’comparable to the payroll of the Washington Redskins football team.

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