Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Nuclear Terrorism: Between the sum of all fears and the ultimate preventable catastrophe

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Nuclear Terrorism: Between the sum of all fears and the ultimate preventable catastrophe

Nuclear Terrorism
Between the sum of all fears and the ultimate preventable catastrophe

The idea of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear materials or even nuclear weapons is not new. Following the use of nuclear weapons against Japan in World War II, experts, the media, as well as ‘Hollywood’ came up with a wide range of scenarios about what might happen next. This included the idea of non-state actors possessing and using such terrifying devices. Examples from the world of movies and novels include ‘The Peacemaker’ (1997), the James Bond movie ‘The World is Not Enough’ (1999) and ‘The Sum of All Fears’ (2002) that is based on the novel by Tom Clancy. Popular works like these have partly shaped our perception of this potential threat. Nuclear terrorism is ‘imaginable’. But is it purely fictional or is it a credible threat?

Most experts would agree the idea of terrorists possessing or using a nuclear weapon is a typical case of a ‘very low probability, extremely high impact’ threat. Such types of threats are difficult to deal with or even to explain or discuss. On the one hand, giving it too much attention would increase fear of nuclear terrorism – which is what terrorists want and exploit. On the other hand, given the extremely high potential impact, it requires attention from experts, policy makers and politicians in order to further decrease the chance of such a threat and to limit its impact. In fact, there is a lot that can be done to keep the nuclear terrorism threat extremely low. The renowned Harvard scholar Graham Allison has called it “the ultimate preventable catastrophe”. In his book with the same title (2004), he arrived at the following two conclusions. The first one sounded alarmist. He argued that if policy makers in Washington would fail to act, a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States was likely to occur or even be inevitable. His second conclusion was of a more hopeful nature. Allison also showed that nuclear terrorism is preventable and provided a blueprint for eliminating the possibility of terrorists being able to strike using nuclear devices. Concrete policy recommendations included diminishing the possibility of non-state actors gaining access to nuclear technology and nuclear materials.

Fortunately, much has been done since 2004, preceded by earlier treaties and founding of organizations designed to limit the number of nuclear stockpiles and their availabilty. However, developments in the field of terrorism and with regard to fragile and failed states show that new groups and new situations can occur that demand constant attention. Think of the plundering of stockpiles of the former ‘wannabe’ nuclear power Libya and the impact of the collapse of the Gadhafi regime on for instance the situation in neighboring Mali. It is therefore important to continue our efforts to minimize the potential risk of nuclear terrorism. Against this backdrop, the Nuclear Security Summit 2014 in The Hague could be of great help to ensure that, one day, the threat of nuclear terrorism is lost in time, among the pages and scenes of fanciful novelists and scriptwriters.


Edwin Bakker

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