Nuclear Terrorism in a Globalizing World: Assessing the Threat and the Emerging Management Regime

Article excerpt


     A. The Cause for Concern
     A. Dimensions
     B. Ramifications: Early Problems Created by the Threat
     C. Economic, Political, and Legal Impacts of Nuclear Terrorism on
        International Relations
     A. International Law and Enforcement
     B. National Policy

On November 8, 2007, four gunmen attacked the Pelindaba nuclear facility located near the Hartbeespoort Dam, eighteen miles west of Pretoria in the Republic of South Africa. News reports suggested that the attackers gained access to the building by using a ladder to climb over a wall. They then broke into the emergency control center in the center of the facility, stole a computer, which they eventually left behind, and breached a control room that was electronically sealed. When confronted by a senior emergency officer at the facility, they shot and seriously wounded him. The South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, the national agency that operates the Pelindaba facility, revealed that the intruders disabled several security devices, including a 10,000-volt electrified fence, which intimated inside familiarity of the system. Although closed circuit television cameras detected their presence, no security guards were viewing the cameras at that time. The four men spent forty-five minutes inside one of South Africa's most heavily guarded "national key points, " i.e., a place considered by the government to be so vital that damage to or disruption of it might compromise the Republic's national interests. At the same time that these four gunmen entered Pelindaba from its eastern perimeter, a second group of attackers unsuccessfully attempted to break in from the west. That these episodes occurred coincidentally suggests a coordinated attack.

Pelindaba is regarded as one of the most secure nuclear facilities in South Africa. It is surrounded by electric fencing, maintains twenty-four hour closed-circuit television surveillance, has armed security guards, and has special security controls at various checkpoints. It is also the facility where hundreds of kilograms of weapons-grade uranium--enough to make an estimated twenty-five nuclear bombs--are stored. Nevertheless, what makes the November 2007 attack on the Pelindaba facility all the more worrisome is that had the intruders been successful, they would have achieved the first known theft of fissile materials from a nuclear power plant leading to production of the "world's first terrorist nuclear bomb." (1)


In the period after the attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11), nuclear terrorism has emerged as the foremost threat to Western security. The prospect of a suicide bomber driving a truck armed with a crude nuclear device into the heart of a major urban area is today considered the ultimate nightmare. During that debates preceding the 2004 U.S. presidential election, both George W. Bush and John Kerry agreed that the gravest security concern to the United States in the twenty-first century was that a nuclear weapon might fall into the hands of terrorists. (2) Similarly, after United Nations experts issued a report in 2004 on major threats to world security that included nuclear terrorism, Secretary-General Kofi Annan underscored this concern by asserting that, "nuclear terrorism is still often treated as science fiction ... I wish it were. But unfortunately we live in a world of excess hazardous materials and abundant technological know-how, in which some terrorists clearly state their intention to inflict catastrophic casualties." (3)

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. remain a stark reminder of the vulnerability of the United States to foreign terrorist strikes. Those events also raise serious concern over the prospect that terrorists might acquire and detonate nuclear weapons in order to achieve their radical aspirations. …