LONDON (Reuters) - Western governments must take seriously the possibility of terrorists exploding a nuclear bomb as the necessary materials and know-how become easier to acquire, security analysts argue in two new reports.
“The threat of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons is real ... moreover, the likelihood of terrorists acquiring such weapons is growing as more states aggressively pursue their own nuclear ambitions,” the EastWest Institute said in a study.
It said the first nuclear terrorist may turn out to be an American or European, reflecting a likely evolution in security threats over the next 10-15 years and a possible shift away from al Qaeda-style Islamist militancy toward eco-terrorism.
In a separate report, London’s influential Chatham House think-tank said it was feasible that terrorists could acquire an atomic bomb, build one themselves, create an “improvised nuclear device” or blow up a nuclear power station.
Another risk was the collapse of government control over civil and military nuclear facilities and materials in countries like Pakistan or North Korea.
The design, materials and engineering for a bomb “have all become commodities, more or less available to those determined enough to acquire them”, said Paul Cornish, head of the international security program at Chatham House.
He said the science and engineering challenges were very difficult but not insurmountable.
Rather than aiming to build a military-grade atomic weapon, terrorists might settle for a cruder improvised device that would require more uranium but a lesser degree of enrichment, thereby reducing one of the key technical barriers.
“The device might then ‘fizzle’ rather than detonate its entire mass instantly and efficiently. But if the resulting explosion were to be equivalent to just one or a few kilotons of TNT rather than tens of kilotons, terrorists could still find this option attractive,” Cornish wrote.
He stressed that such a scenario was just one of a range of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats which were all appealing options for terrorist groups.
Security analysts see a CBRN attack as a logical escalation for groups such as al Qaeda, which in the past has frequently varied its strikes and sought to increase their scale — notably with the September 11, 2001 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Eliza Manningham-Buller, head of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5, said in November that future threats “may include the use of chemicals, bacteriological agents, radioactive materials and even nuclear technology”.
Ken Berry, author of the EastWest Institute report, said the rise of environmental militants would bring “an even bigger prospect that scientific personnel from the richest countries will aid eco-terrorist use of nuclear weapons or materials”.
Some security analysts believe the effects of global warming will exacerbate the world’s rich-poor divide, intensify conflicts over land, water and other resources and help to radicalize populations and fan terrorism.
The study highlighted the recent poisoning of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, apparently with radioactive polonium smuggled in from Russia, as proof that the international community lacks proper controls on nuclear materials that could be used by terrorists.
Greg Austin, a Brussels-based analyst for the institute, said the episode showed that secular Europeans were not averse to using nuclear substances as weapons. “We need to deal with the prospect that the first nuclear terrorist is in fact more likely to be American or European,” he said.