Nuclear terrorism

Currently, 438 commercial nuclear power plants or nuclear research reactors are operating in around 60 nations. Nuclear reactors and associated facilities, particularly spent fuel storage facilities, which contain large quantities of long-lived radioactive substances, potentially pose a highly attractive target for terrorist attack.

Nuclear terrorism could happen by:

  • exploding a ‘dirty bomb’ to disperse radioactive particles across an area
  • acquiring or fabricating a crude nuclear explosive to cause as much deaith and destruction as possible
  • attacking a nuclear facility or material in transit.

Indeed considering the large number of potential targets, the resulting severe environmental contamination, major social disruption, economic damage and political effect, it is hard to envisage many more attractive potential targets for terrorists.

  • In both the US and Russia, simulated attacks on nuclear power plants have shown that many reactors are poorly secured, even against an attack by a handful of relatively lightly armed persons. 
  • 27 of the 57 simulated attacks in the US in the 1990s revealed significant vulnerabilities that could have caused reactor core damage and release of radioactivity, according to the WorldWatch Institute in 2005.
  • Even unarmed environmental groups have been readily able to demonstrate the vulnerability of nuclear plants, such as actions which saw Greenpeace activists scale the Sizewell reactor in the UK after storming the plant, and others similarly accessing the reactor complex at Lucas Heights in Sydney.

Even without the use of  fully developed nuclear weapons, targeting an operating nuclear reactor or reprocessing facility would essentially convert an act of war to a radioactive war, and a conventional terrorist attack into a radioactive attack.

The threat of nuclear terrorism is compounded by:

  • the dangerous number of nuclear weapons inthe world today
  • a surfeit of often inadequately secured weapons-usable radioactive materials available to determined state and non-state actors who may be willing to use them for their own political purposes
  • the widespread presence of nuclear facilities and potential nuclear targets around the world.

Essential reading: