Nuclear terrorism risk seen growing By Mark Trevelyan, Security Correspondent
1 hour, 15 minutes ago
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.
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.