In the recent past, there has been much debate on the concern of nuclear weapons going into the hands of terrorists. After the recent terrorist attacks on European cities, the issue is again in vogue and concerns are being expressed that the recent attacks in almost all parts of the world — from Belgium to France, from Germany to Turkey and from Pakistan to Afghanistan, and elsewhere — would have been catastrophic if the terrorists had gotten their hands on nuclear weapons or even a primitive “dirty bomb,” which combines nuclear material with conventional explosives. The following paragraphs throw light on the aspect that what may happen if terrorists get hold of a nuclear weapon.
What if terrorists get hold of a nuclear weapon?
In today’s unpredictable global security environment, the existence of weapons of mass destruction is worrying, particularly, with the possibility that they could fall into the hands of terrorists and non-state actors. Although efforts to maintain strategic stability and deterrence during the Cold War helped prevent the use of nuclear weapons, the threats we face today do not lend themselves to the classic understandings of nuclear deterrence. In today’s multipolar and asymmetric world, the constraints that held back nuclear conflagration for so long are straining at the seams.
Former US President George W. Bush once warned that rogue states “could provide weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred”. In her attempt to rally support for the decision to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “Terrorists might acquire such weapons from Saddam Hussein’s regime to mount a future attack far beyond the scale of 9/11.” She said this, having no proof that Iraq did actually possess nuclear weapons.
These growing fears were then presented in a five-minute graphic film on YouTube titled “My Nuclear Nightmare”, prepared by Bill Perry, the 19th US Defense Secretary. The film describes how a breakaway faction of a rogue state’s security forces enriches 40kgs of weapons-grade uranium in a secret facility and then constructs what appears to be a crude bomb, similar in design and yield to the kind that obliterated Hiroshima in 1945. It then transports the bomb in a box labelled “agricultural equipment” by civilian cargo aircraft to Dubai and on to Washington, DC. It is soon loaded onto a delivery truck and driven to Pennsylvania Avenue, where it is detonated at the halfway point between the White House and the Capitol building.
What follows is excruciating. More than 80,000 people are instantly killed, including the President, the Vice-President and every member of Congress present. Another 100,000 are severely injured. Phones are down. A little later, it gets even worse: TV news stations have received a message that there are five more such bombs hidden in five more American cities. One bomb will be triggered each week unless all American troops serving abroad are immediately sent home. Panic ensues as people stream out of cities and with the administration wiped out by the blast, there is a constitutional crisis. Martial law is declared as looting and rioting spread; military detention centres spring up across the country.
One may doubt the intention behind creating such a film, the concerns and apprehensions conveyed through this video are not ignorable at all. Although it is true that even pariah regimes care a lot about nuclear security, and that the regimes that invest in a nuclear-weapons capability do so only for their own survival as they do not do it to empower terrorist groups, yet the idea that a breakaway group would manage to set up a clandestine enrichment facility in a vulnerable state does stretch credulity.
The successful detonation by a terrorist group of even a crude and improvised nuclear device in a major city could result in the deaths of thousands and have significant, if not unfathomable, economic and political global consequences. But still, it is hard for any sane person to deny that the current global regime for protecting the nuclear materials — terrorists are eyeing to get hold of — is far from perfect. It is based largely on unaccountable, voluntary arrangements that are inconsistent across borders. Its weak links make it dangerous and inadequate to prevent nuclear terrorism.
There are two primary pathways by which terrorist groups could acquire a nuclear weapon: by directly acquiring a nuclear weapon itself from a nuclear weapons state’s arsenal, or by acquiring enough nuclear materials to construct an improvised nuclear device. Hence, the fundamental task at hand is to prevent terrorists from accessing nuclear weapons or the fissile material that goes into a nuclear weapon. Without the material, which a terrorist organization cannot produce on its own, the threat is eliminated. Indeed, this requires an international response. Failing that, the threat of nukes falling into the hands of terrorists would no longer be hypothetical. A terrorist nuclear explosion could kill hundreds of thousands, create billions of dollars in damages and undermine the global economy. Former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, opines that an act of nuclear terrorism “would thrust tens of millions of people into dire poverty,” and would create “colossal death toll throughout the developing world.”
A laudable international response to this growing threat has been the US-led Nuclear Security Summit process — head-of-state-level events, attended by over 50 countries and international organizations. The NSS process has been instrumental in advancing the twin goals of enhancing the international nuclear security architecture, and strengthening efforts to better secure vulnerable nuclear materials. As a result of this initiative, the number of countries and facilities with highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium — the key materials in nuclear weapons — is decreasing and the quantities of these materials have been substantially reduced. Security practices and procedures at nuclear sites and in transit are improving and countries across the globe are better prepared to counter nuclear smuggling. In short, nuclear security measures are stronger worldwide.
Despite those efforts, 24 states still have 1kg or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials, and nearly 2,000 tonnes of weapons-usable nuclear materials (1,400 of HEU, 500 of plutonium) remain stored around the world, much of it still vulnerable to theft, in the view of Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an advocacy organisation. A terrorist group would not need much fissile material to make a nuclear bomb — about enough HEU to fill a 2kg bag of sugar or a quantity of plutonium the size of a grapefruit. Moreover, the world has about 17,000 assembled nuclear weapons (although all but 1,000 of them are in either America or Russia). Harvard’s Belfer Centre calculates that it would require the theft of only 0.01% of the stockpile to “cause a global catastrophe”.
When it comes to Pakistan, the country’s nuclear programme, since its installation, has been a target of harsh and subjective criticism. Although this approach has failed to cap the progressive trajectory of the programme, yet it has fashioned negative caveats about the safety and security of the country’s nuclear infrastructure. However, it is encouraging to note that the country took substantial measures to secure its nuclear arsenal. According to a study on worldwide nuclear material security by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), released on 9th of January 2014, Pakistan was the ‘most improved’ country among nine nuclear-armed states, and a state better at safeguarding its nuclear materials than its arch-rival i.e. India, after having boosted physical protection of nuclear material and weapons. Among 25 countries with weapons-grade nuclear materials, Pakistan was ranked 22 (46 points out of 100) whereas India was ranked 23 (41 points out of 100).
Pakistan’s improvement was primarily due to an increased score for on-site physical protection resulting from new laws and regulations requiring licensees to provide physical protection to nuclear sites and on-site reviews of security. So, the maligning propaganda must end now and the world should come up with a system based on a global framework convention on nuclear security in order to fill the gaps in existing voluntary arrangements. Such a framework convention would commit states to an effective standard of nuclear security practices, incorporate relevant existing international agreements, and give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the mandate to support nuclear security by evaluating whether states are meeting their nuclear security obligations and providing assistance to those states that need help in doing so.
Any sort of nuclear terrorism is preventable with more aggressive action. All nuclear-weapons states must show greater will to eliminate all chances of the nukes falling into the hands of the terrorists as it is the only way to make our world free of nuclear weapons. Regional cooperation among states to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction is inevitable now. World leaders must act to strengthen security not just at civilian nuclear facilities but also at nuclear weapons sites.