Keeping Nuclear Terrorism a Threat Only in Theory

09/11/2011 04:16 pm ET | Updated Nov 11, 2011

On September 11, as the world mourns the deaths in New York and Washington of ten years ago, some solace might be found in noting that the events that day are still the world's most deadly terrorist attack to date. Osama bin Laden did not subsequently fulfill his self-professed religious obligation to obtain nuclear weapons. The "nuclear hell storm" that Al Qaeda operative Khalid Sheik Mohammed said would be unleashed if bin Laden was killed has not come to pass. There has not been a single incident of nuclear terrorism, even using a radiation-spreading dirty bomb.

The freedom from nuclear terrorism that the world has enjoyed is due, no doubt, to some combination of the competence of concerned governments and the incompetence of those who seek to inflict mass harm. Luck has also played a role. In light of the potential demand for nuclear materials by terrorists and the black market supply, the odds of terrorist nuclear attack occurring somewhere in the world are still far too high.

On the demand side, Al Qaeda may be on the run. But there are still plenty of violent extremist groups which to varying degrees share Al Qaeda's ideology and intent to cause harm. Copycat wannabes and lone wolves also present a threat. Although constructing even crude nuclear weapons requires a level of knowledge and organizational sophistication beyond the reach of most terrorist networks, even a single operative can find ways to misuse radiological material for terrorist purpose. Anders Breivik, perpetrator of the July 22 Oslo twin attacks, devoted 42 pages of his "manifesto" to nuclear and radiological terrorism. His intent on high-impact terrorism and his understanding of the hurdles and consequences inherent in a radiological attack are ample warning of the genuine possibility of such an event.

On the supply side, the global stockpile of fissile material is sufficient for 100,000 nuclear weapons. Ominously, production is increasing in places such as Pakistan where the terrorism threat will remain high for some time to come. Radiological sources, used for treating cancer and in other common applications but which can be used for dirty bombs to spread radiation, number upwards of a million. Nuclear terrorism includes attacks on nuclear facilities something Breivik analyzed in some detail. Think Fukushima a la Al-Zawahiri. And Fukushima notwithstanding, more countries plan to introduce nuclear power to meet rising energy needs, diversify sources of supply and minimize carbon emissions.

Fortunately, the world is largely united in recognizing the terrorist threat. At the Nuclear Security Summit in April 2010, leaders from 47 countries endorsed President Barack Obama's four-year goal of putting all nuclear material out of reach of terrorist hands. The participating countries also made specific pledges toward meeting that goal and implementation of those pledges has been solid: 60% fulfilled, according to one private assessment, and 30% partial fulfillment. The UK, for example, followed through on its pledges by ratifying two key international conventions on nuclear security, by contributing to a nuclear security fund operated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and by inviting a nuclear security review from the IAEA.

A second nuclear security summit to be held in Seoul next March will review the commitments made in 2010, in the expectation that the meeting will serve as an action-forcing event. Yet those pledges were easy pickings for the most part. To meet the goal of securing all nuclear material, states must do more to identify nuclear security gaps and then to plug them.

The nuclear security summit process is a useful way of maintaining focused global attention to the nuclear terrorism threat and the means of averting it. A global response is needed because any nuclear terrorist attack is likely to have international roots and most certainly will have global repercussions catastrophic in nature. States that have not yet ratified the amended convention on standards for physical protection of nuclear materials and facilities (the laggards include the US, Canada, and many EU members) should do so quickly so that the instrument can enter into force. The use of highly enriched uranium for reactors and other civil applications should be phased out. Radiological materials should be strictly licensed and accounted for.

By taking individual and collective steps to secure nuclear and radiological material and by also continuing to hamper the demand side, the international community can see to it that 9-11 continues to be the worst terrorist attack ever.

Mark Fitzpatrick and Nigel Inkster are respectively Director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme and Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Fitzpatrick was formerly US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation. Inkster was formerly Assistant Chief and Director for Operations and Intelligence in the British Secret Intelligence Service.