“What is the problem? The breakup of the Soviet Union left nuclear materials scattered throughout the newly independent states and increased the potential for the theft of the those materials, and for organized criminals to enter the nuclear smuggling business. As horrible as the tragedies in Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center were, imagine the destruction that could have resulted had there been a small-scale nuclear device exploded there.”

— President William Jefferson Clinton


The problem is recognizing that the nuclear threat from terrorists acquiring weapons grade fissile material is greater than all the other threats combined and that it has to be treated independently for the specific set of threats it poses.

Biological and chemical threats are scalable in their level of threat because they create damage in proportion to the amount of material distributed over a given geographical area. The effects, while deadly, are relatively short term and perishable with proper treatment. Also, they are dependant on effective distribution systems and environmental conditions. They can be used in small amounts in small areas quite easily but use in large areas requires techniques that lend themselves to detection and prevention. If an event occurs, rapid response can mitigate their effects substantially in a relatively short time.

In comparison, the nuclear threat is that it will cause the greatest damage over a large area from a single point with a small amount of material. A nuclear blast is its own distribution system and its effects are persistent over larger areas for longer periods. Rapid response to an event will offer little in the mitigation of the effects other than defining the areas of destruction and contamination. It will create its own environment for distribution as it expands into the prevailing environment.

Level of Threat

Dealing with nuclear terrorism requires an understanding of what the potential threats are, at what level they exist and what their consequences will be. The most formidable characteristics of terrorism are variability and unpredictability. Target selection, time of use, degree of destruction and psychological impact are all open questions.

Where any nuclear threat is perceived, maximum effort has to be expended to verify its potential and prevent the occurrence of an event. There are no options to this action. However, reaction at this level will require a mobilization of resources in a given area in a very short period of time. Therefore, the overall consequences of a nuclear threat by terrorists have to be evaluated within its probability of occurrence. Multiple threats of nuclear events would quickly paralyze the response systems and produce wide scale vulnerabilities, increasing the probability of a successful terrorist event at some location .

Specific scenarios of prevention and reaction need to be developed by posing postulates for as many methods of acquisition, assembly and deployment as can be imagined. Unfortunately, it appears that no focused effort in this regard has coalesced. The most discernible appreciation for the nuclear threat seems to be to prepare for an after-the-fact reaction to it.


Proliferation in the production of fissile materials in many countries has increased the probability that such materials will fall into the hands of terrorist groups who have the capability for assembling crude nuclear weapons.

During the Cold War, nuclear materials were highly controlled by the nations that developed them. With the end of the Cold War, the controls have slipped to an unacceptable level; security for nuclear inventories has been dangerously degraded. In fact, there are unknown amounts of fissile material for which there has been no accountability. Locations for these materials are scattered and, for the most part, unknown. Additionally, inventory control at many of the existing storage warehouses for nuclear materials is lacking and security measures are generally unsophisticated and inadequate.

The major threat these unaccounted for materials present is that they will fall into the hands of terrorist groups whose purpose is to bring about, for their own cause, destruction, distraction from national purpose and general social upheaval. Secondary threats will be the creation of unbridled fear, distrust, economic instability and the sense of a loss of personal security should the possession become known.

Preventive Measures

The imperative for detecting and controlling these materials is recognizing that for them to be useful for terrorist purposes the materials must be moved from their points of origin or storage to points of utilization. If a concentrated effort is directed toward identifying potential transfer methodologies and routes of distribution then it might be possible to interdict the materials before they can be transformed into weapons status.

In the area of import/export accountability there is much work to be done. There are no international standards that can be effectively applied for maintaining control during the transportation of nuclear materials and, even if there were, It would take a prodigious effort to oversee the extremely complex interconnected network of international transportation and commerce. The proliferation of the drug traffic throughout the world presents strong evidence of this fact. Gaps in import/export controls almost insure that distribution of fissile materials will occur undetected.

Once the material is in the distribution system the unknown factors increase – Where did it go? To whom? And for what purpose? Even when lost it bequeaths a set of hazardous conditions that are unacceptable in normal commerce.

Yet, movement is a key to interdiction. To be useful, the materials must be sent to a central location for additional processing and assembly. At some point sufficient material must be present to construct a nuclear device. Movement of large quantities of fissile material to a construction site is unlikely because it presents a greater possibility for interdiction than do small quantities. Also, large scale movements present additional hazards to the handling facilities because of the possibilities of radioactive leakage and accidental detection.

Movement of small quantities of the material, on the other hand, afford a greater probability that the movement will be undetected by conventional means and will be delivered successfully to a destination of choice. Smaller shipments are more likely to remain undetected during transport.

Established commercial conveyance systems probably will be used where small quantities of fissile material can be shipped using various packaging techniques and routes to a single destination. Because of the increased detection probabilities, quantities of fissile material will not be shipped in a given container to a single destination.

Some possibilities for moving this type of material are:

(1) – Superimpose the shipment of small, well-shielded packages on established drug and contraband routes.

(2) – Ship materials conventionally in well-shielded, small containers through a surreptitious network of widely dispersed handlers.

(3) – Man carry many small quantities across the mostly porous borders of the United States.

(4) – Use diversified distribution techniques (routes and conveyances) by requiring multiple way-points and altering the characteristics of external shipping containers at each point.

(5) – Mix materials and legitimate products for routine deliveries.

The formidable nature of the tasks required to detect and identify well packaged fissile materials in small quantities renders the likelihood of detection highly questionable.

The most complex of the above projections is No. 4. Presuming an originating point in Asia, a small package could be shipped with little notice through Cambodia to the island of Palau into Micronesia or the Phillipines, then through the small Kiribati Islands to the Cook Islands, then to Hawaii and then to the mainland USA through Mexico, Canada or directly through an open area of the US borders. There are literally hundreds of such routes that could be set up and utilized. The detection and surveillance of these multiple transfer shipping points would require the participation of hundreds of specialists examining all arriving and departing packages – a near impossible task, thereby essentially insuring a successful delivery for most attempts.

The virtual impossibility of providing surveillance at the many points of exit in the Far East and the many potential points for entry into the United States makes this an imposing task but nevertheless it has to be undertaken. It is almost a given that, once in the United States, the free and open access to our highway network and relatively unsecured transportation system, make it a simple task to transport dangerous materials throughout the United States without any great fear of interdiction.

Where nuclear materials are concerned, individuals involved with national security need to become focused on more effective prevention strategies than ever before. This new era of terrorism demands a dramatic shift in thinking with regard to the possibility of a small-scale, but dramatic and destructive, nuclear catastrophe. No longer are they faced with decisions about extensive arrays of military weapons with comprehensive destructive capabilities, but rather, they are faced with the likelihood of attacks by small covert bands of individuals with crude nuclear weapons which can still deliver substantial destructive power.

New methodologies incorporating sophisticated sensing devices are needed for the tasks of detecting, containing, and eliminating small-scale movements of nuclear material in order to prevent such terrorist events. The face of war is changing from that of a well-equipped soldier in uniform to that of the nondescript member of a dedicated cult whose very nature is to deceive and remaine hidden from view until their targets are most vulnerable and the political climate is confused.


There are no easy solutions or quick fixes.

“The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, as we drift toward unparalleled catastrophes.”

– Albert Einstein

A number of experts predicted that some catastrophic event similar to the Oklahoma City bombing disaster would be needed to energize the international community to work in concert to eliminate this problem. It has happened in New York and Washington. The unfortunate fact is that the US government, as well as other governments, and the American people found themselves in situations for which they were not prepared. This has to change.

The danger is so great, and the threat so immediate, that US policymakers and the public need to recognize that the diversion of fissile materials is as critical and urgent a national security priority as controlling the theft of a complete nuclear weapon. This will require top-level commitment to public education and sufficient resource allocation if, eventually, we are to prevail in this new security challenge.

One can only hope that a nuclear tragedy will not be necessary for galvanizing world action, and that we will achieve progress toward an international consensus that it is in no one’s interest to allow these materials to be expropriated for terrorist purposes. The need is to concentrate an effort within existing political structures to build a collective regional security, capped by the United Nations, that would promote collaboration among nuclear weapons states to establish methods and records of control over the inventories of fissile materials.

In examining current efforts on how to stop the illegal distribution of these materials, it is hard to see how any current strategy, no matter how clever the concept or broad the implementation, could do more than raise the level of awareness of the problem. The responsibility is so fragmented among sovereign states and among competing agencies within these sovereignties that viable methods of control are either paralyzed or, for practical purposes, nonexistent. Because of this, problems in managing the inventories of these materials are too diverse and complex to solve in the short term. Consequently, without international cooperation, the United States cannot expect to control the misappropriation of fissile material that is inherent in nuclear proliferation and inappropriate nuclear disarmament methodologies.

The reality is that a number of states are actively seeking the technology to manufacture nuclear weapons. Their main requirement is getting the materials to do so. Unfortunately, because of some very lax attitudes toward the security of weapons grade nuclear materials during the current disarmament process, the materials already exist in the Black Market. Indifference to this fact seems to be continuing and will contribute to the likelihood that, within the next two-to-three years, there will be a political crisis involving a terrorist group and nuclear materials.

Slow progress has been made in establishing global and regional non proliferation measures. Commensurately, little effort has been expended for controlling the illegal movement of fissile materials. There appears to be a blindness to the fact that, in this imperfect world, while no system can be developed that will stop all the determined terrorists; a high level of effort must be expended for understanding the dimensions of the problem and correcting deficiencies. In some measure, all civilized nations should be prepared to respond as effectively as possible when terrorist threats of any kind occur but, especially, where nuclear materials are concerned.

During the Cold War, high technology warheads sat atop powerful delivery systems. Targeting was a known factor. The world was at risk of a hair-trigger response but the realization of a mutually assured destruction kept these systems under “reasonable” control. Today, the potential weapon size is speculative and the delivery system in all probability will have feet. The targets are completely unpredictable – they can be anything, anywhere, at any time. No negotiating. No advanced warning. No clues of impending danger. Nothing is rational in the equation.

Ultimately, there can be no foolproof system short of eliminating all inventories of the materials. However, it is an immediate and critical imperative that all nations work in collaboration to eliminate the spread of fissile materials. Control will require the continuous and simultaneous exercise of multiple measures including international intelligence gathering, international cooperation for conflict resolution, import/export accountability, and selective, proportional coercive measures including the use of force. Eventually, a comprehensive set of measures will have to be developed for the international community that will allow it to exercise the political will to stop and ultimately eliminate the threat of a catastrophe involving terrorist and nuclear materials.

George Washington said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” Again, it is time to listen to one of our founding fathers.

*Gene R. Kelly is a human factors engineer who has consulted for government and industry on issues of nuclear security for the past 22 years.