Three scenarios illustrate the threat of a nuclear device in rogue hands
TO SEE a nuclear horror story unfold, look no further than YouTube. In “My Nuclear Nightmare”, a five-minute graphic film, Bill Perry, a former American defence secretary, describes how a breakaway faction of a rogue state’s security forces enriches 40 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium in a secret facility and then constructs what appears to be a crude bomb, similar in design and yield to the kind that obliterated Hiroshima. It then transports the bomb in a box labelled “agricultural equipment” by civilian cargo aircraft to Dubai and on to Washington, DC. It is soon loaded onto a delivery truck and driven to Pennsylvania Avenue, where it is detonated at the halfway point between the White House and the Capitol building.
What follows is excruciating. More than 80,000 people are instantly killed, including the president, the vice-president and every member of Congress present. Another 100,000 are severely injured. Phones are down. A little later, it gets even worse: TV news stations have received a message that there are five more such bombs hidden in five more American cities. One bomb will be triggered each week unless all American troops serving abroad are immediately sent home. Panic ensues as people stream out of cities, and with the administration wiped out by the blast there is a constitutional crisis. Martial law is declared as looting and rioting spread; military detention centres spring up across the country.
How plausible is Mr Perry’s gut-churning scenario? Even pariah regimes care a lot about nuclear security. The idea that a breakaway group would manage to set up a clandestine enrichment facility in a place like Iran or even North Korea thankfully stretches credulity. Regimes that invest in a nuclear-weapons capability, despite all the political and economic costs associated with such programmes, do so for one reason only: their own survival. They do not do it to empower terrorist groups, even those they might sympathise with. Attribution would be inevitable, as would retribution once it had been established.
But concern about rogue nukes is serious enough for Barack Obama to have made a major effort during his presidency to stop terrorists from getting hold of either a nuclear weapon or fissile material that could be turned into one. He organised four nuclear-security summits aimed at creating better global safeguards to prevent highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium falling into the wrong hands. Progress has been made: HEU has been removed from 30 countries; many research reactors and isotope-production facilities have been closed or converted to use low-enriched uranium; security has been tightened at dozens of storage sites.
Despite those efforts, 24 states still have 1kg or more of weapons-usable nuclear materials, and nearly 2,000 tonnes of weapons-usable nuclear materials (1,400 of HEU, 500 of plutonium) remain stored around the world, much of it still vulnerable to theft, in the view of Sam Nunn, co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an advocacy organisation. A terrorist group would not need much fissile material to make a nuclear bomb–about enough HEU to fill a 2kg bag of sugar or a quantity of plutonium the size of a grapefruit. Moreover, the world has about 17,000 assembled nuclear weapons (although all but 1,000 of them are in either America or Russia). Harvard’s Belfer Centre calculates that it would require the theft of only 0.01% of the stockpile to “cause a global catastrophe”.
Beware of dirty tricks
Al-Qaeda has long had the ambition to acquire a nuclear device and there is little doubt that Islamic State (IS), in Mr Obama’s words, is “seeking nuclear material to kill as many people as possible”. Thanks to its control of territory, oil revenues and ability to recruit qualified engineers, a nuclear-capable IS seems all too plausible one day if it survives long enough. In a scenario envisaged at the most recent of Mr Obama’s nuclear-security summits, held in Washington, DC, in April, IS buys nuclear material from a medical facility sold to it by “insiders” through the dark web, constructs several “dirty bombs” and then detonates them from commercially available drones flying over a city.