The Myths of Nuclear Terrorism


James Bond Movies, Cold War era and post-9/11 Hollywood movies have always proposed the idea of a terrorist cell procuring atomic bombs from Russia or Middle East countries to wreak havoc on the American public. It’s not just in the movies, the whole American government policy and world view is aimed at combating nuclear terrorism. Even, Obama started the first Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC with these remarks: “Nuclear materials that could be sold or stolen and fashioned into a nuclear weapon exist in dozens of nations”; “We are drifting towards a catastrophe beyond comparison. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” But, why Al-Qaeda or any other extremist groups haven’t been able to strike with nuclear weapons, instead of shooting up in malls and placing truck bombs in markets? May be the terrorists or still fabricating their plans or may be this “War on Terrorism” business needs invisible enemies to flourish dark illusions.

We are increasingly relying on nuclear energy to lessen the dependence on carbon fuels. What if the uranium, weapon grade plutonium are stolen from these nuclear energy enriched countries by terrorist groups or radical organizations. The inability to prevent illicit nuclear trade in certain states could serve as an advantage for transnational terrorists to achieve their perilous atomic bomb design. These are the general theories given to depict the specter of nuclear attacks. Experts are mostly worried about the ‘suitcase bombs’ or ‘loose nukes’ which could be bought or stolen from global nuclear market. This view mainly came into existence after the breakup of Soviet Union.  However, the most feared method is the manufacture of nuclear materials by a terrorist group to design an ‘improvised weapon of terror’, which could be set off at the target by a suicidal detonation. This is s daunting task. It’s not like building a bomb with some spare parts and power tools in the back of a garage. It requires millions and millions of dollars, a safe haven, and people with highly specialized skills. Even if a prototype emerges after all these obstacles, there is no guarantee that it would work.


Manufacturing the required fissile material for a nuclear bomb needs an effort on industrial scale. No nuclear state has ever given a bomb or nuclear materials to an ally. The known thefts of highly enriched Uranium across the globe have totaled less than six pounds. This is far less than what is required to produce a likely yield of one kiloton (at least 100 pounds are needed). Let’s say the terrorists have crossed all the obstacles and have produced atomic bomb in utter secrecy. The final produced product may weigh a ton or more. Now, they can’t drop or hurl it over a country. So, they have to encapsulate it inside a lead shield and would have to transport into the relevant target country and must have a group of collaborators, who should not only be dedicated to the cause, but also need the technical proficiency in assembling, handling and perhaps detonating after it arrives. The estimated cost for building such a bomb is nearly $10 million and the amount of bribes in an operation like this could easily go ten times higher than the making.

Using fissile materials gathered from a commercial reactor to produce a nuclear weapon is an implausible method. The spent materials from these reactors can’t produce an explosion above the force of a kiloton of TNT. Theoretically, acquiring a nuclear weapon is certainly possible. In the past few decades, biological and chemical weapons have created viable threats and are easier to obtain and use than nuclear weapons. So, why would terrorists go on a rampage, to commit mass murder, which could alienate the entire world’s population? Even a non-political extremist group’s goal is not obliterate mankind. Their wish is to crush society as we know it, but at the same time they need people to cause great public fear.

We can’t totally ignore a possibility of such an attack, since improbable events do take place in this world. But, we should be aware of predetermined doomsday theories, whose only usage is to instill fear and a sense of helplessness in the public. Just remember that, most of the terrorism myths stems from the fraudulent government policies and from the imaginations of mass media.

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