The Global Politics of Combating Nuclear Terrorism: A Supply-Side Approach

The Global Politics of Combating Nuclear Terrorism: A Supply-Side Approach

The Global Politics of Combating Nuclear Terrorism: A Supply-Side Approach

The Global Politics of Combating Nuclear Terrorism: A Supply-Side Approach


The most difficult challenge for a terrorist organization seeking to build a nuclear weapon or improvised nuclear device is obtaining fissile material, either plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU). Experts acknowledge that obtaining HEU, uranium that has been processed to increase the proportion of the U-235 isotope to over 20%, is the most difficult challenge facing a state or non-state actor seeking to build a nuclear explosive. The large stocks of HEU in civilian use, many not adequately protected, are thus one of the greatest security risks facing the global community at present. This book contains chapters examining the various uses for this material and possible alternatives; the threat posed by this material; the economic, political and strategic obstacles to international efforts to end the use of HEU for commercial and research purposes; as well as new national and international measures that should be taken to further the elimination of HEU.

This book was published as a special issue of The Nonproliferation Review.


The challenge of preventing nuclear terrorism gained new urgency after the attacks of September 11, 2001. Prior to 9/11, concerns about “loose nukes” generally focused on the possibility of the transfers to “rogue states” of nuclear weapons or the material and technologies to make such arms. Few experts considered large-scale nuclear violence by non-state actors to be likely, or for that matter, the aim of terrorist groups. After 9/11, however, this nuclear calculus changed, and it became conventional wisdom that at least some terrorist organizations sought nuclear explosives for the explicit purpose of inflicting massive punishment.

A two-year project undertaken by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) examined nuclear terrorism risks and the best ways to combat them. The urgency of the study was accentuated by growing evidence of Al Qaeda’s interest in and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear explosives. Although unsuccessful to date, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups almost certainly have been learning quickly. Unlike the misdirected efforts of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, terrorist organizations today are more likely to understand what equipment, technology, and materials are needed for a successful weapons effort. As such, the international community can no longer count on non-state actors’ lack of expertise to reinforce luck as a nonproliferation strategy, but needs to work together in a concerted fashion to block the most obvious pathways to a terrorist nuclear weapon.

The results of CNS research, published in The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism, focused on a variety of alternative forms of nuclear terrorism: attacks on or sabotage of nuclear facilities, manufacture and use of a radiological dispersal device, theft and detonation of an intact nuclear weapon, and construction of an a crude but real nuclear explosive— a so-called improvised nuclear device or IND. One of the major findings of the study was the under-appreciated threat posed by INDs, a risk that was compounded by large global stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium (HEU)—the material most likely to be used by terrorists in the most basic nuclear explosive.

As a follow-up to the study on different facets of nuclear terrorism, CNS initiated a project that focused more specifically on the global politics of combating nuclear terrorism involving the use of HEU. This research entailed an examination of the use of . . .

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