Threats & Vulnerabilities

At the 2014 Hague Nuclear Security Summit, world leaders reaffirmed that it is the fundamental responsibility of states to take “appropriate measures to prevent non-state actors from obtaining [nuclear and other radioactive materials]….which could be used for malicious purposes.” The following reports provide analysis on what threats and vulnerabilities exist today. These documents are drawn from Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, as well as from other leading scholars and organizations working on issues of nuclear security and nuclear terrorism. 

FEATURED ITEMS

Advancing Nuclear Security: Evaluating Progress and Setting New Goals
March 2014 | Report
Harvard Kennedy School | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
By Matthew Bunn, Martin B. Malin, Nickolas Roth, and William H. Tobey

"In the lead-up to the nuclear security summit in The Hague, Advancing Nuclear Security: Evaluating Progress and Setting New Goals outlines what was accomplished in a four-year effort launched in 2009 to secure nuclear material around the globe—and what remains to be done....The authors conclude that “all countries with nuclear weapons, separated plutonium, or highly enriched uranium (HEU) on their soil have more to do to ensure these items are effectively and lastingly secured.”  (click here to view)

The Nuclear Terrorism Threat
January 2014 | Presentation
Harvard Kennedy School | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs 
By William H. Tobey and Pavel S. Zolotarev

In these slides, William H. Tobey and Pavel Zolotarev provide an updated summary of the threat of nuclear terrorism, based in part on the new U.S.-Russian report,Steps to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism. This was presented at the Meeting of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit ‘Sherpas’, hosted by the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pattaya, Thailand, on January 13, 2014. (click here to view)

The U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment of Nuclear Terrorism
June 2011 | Report
Harvard Kennedy School | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs | Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies
By Matthew Bunn, Yuri Morozov, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Simon Saradzhyan, William H. Tobey, Viktor I. Yesin, Pavel S. Zolotarev

Researchers from the United States and Russia have issued a joint assessment of the global threat of nuclear terrorism, warning of a persistent danger that terrorists could obtain or make a nuclear device and use it with catastrophic consequences. The first joint threat assessment by experts from the world’s two major nuclear powers concludes: “If current approaches toward eliminating the threat are not replaced with a sense of urgency and resolve, the question will become not if but when, and on what scale, the first act of nuclear terrorism occurs.” (click here to view)

Threat Perceptions and Drivers of Change in Nuclear Security Around the World: Results of a Survey
March 2014 | Report
Harvard Kennedy School | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
By Matthew Bunn and Eben Harrell 

Leaders at the 2010 nuclear security summit agreed on the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material in four years. This goal implied that many countries would change their nuclear security policies. But the factors that drive changes in nuclear security policies, and that constrain those changes, are not well understood. We conducted a survey of selected nuclear security experts in countries with nuclear weapons, highly enriched uranium (HEU), or separated plutonium, to explore this issue. This paper describes the survey, its results, and implications for next steps to strengthen global nuclear security. (click here to view)

Plutonium Mountain: Inside the 17-Year Mission to Secure a Dangerous Legacy of Soviet Nuclear Testing
August 2013 | Report
Harvard Kennedy School | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
By Eben Harrell and David E. Hoffman

This report tells the story of a cooperative effort involving the United States, Russia, and Kazakhstan to secure plutonium located at Semipalatinsk, one of the Soviet Union’s former nuclear test sites. (click here to view)

Al-Qaeda Weapons of Mass Destruction: Hype or Reality?
January 2010 | Paper
Harvard Kennedy School | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
By Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

This report presents a comprehensive chronology, in unclassified form, of al-Qaeda’s roughly 15-year quest to acquire weapons of mass destruction. (click here to view)

Terrorist Nuclear Weapon Construction: How Difficult?
September 2006 | Journal Article
The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science
By Matthew Bunn and Anthony Weir

The likelihood of a nuclear terrorist attack depends in part on the ability of terrorist groups to acquire, construct, and detonate a nuclear device. This article attempts to determine the difficulty of such an endeavor by examining the underlying physical facts about nuclear fission, nuclear materials, and nuclear weapons design. The facts bear out a simple conclusion: while the danger should not be exaggerated, a nuclear terrorist attack is potentially within the capabilities of a well organized and sophisticated terrorist group. A nuclear attack might be one of the most difficult missions a terrorist group could hope to try, but if a highly capable group acquired a stolen nuclear bomb or enough nuclear material to make one, there can be few grounds for confidence that they would be unable to use it. (click here to view)

OTHER RESOURCES

A World Awash in a Nuclear Explosive?
March 2014 | Article
Center for Public Integrity
By Douglas Birch and R. Jeffrey Smith

“A generation after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the world is rediscovering the attractions of nuclear power to curb the warming pollution of carbon fuels. And so a new industry focused on plutonium-based nuclear fuel has begun to take shape in the far reaches of Asia, with ambitions to spread elsewhere — and some frightening implications, if Thomas Cochran is correct.” (click here to view)

NTI Nuclear Materials Security Index - Building a Framework for Assurance, Accountability, and Action
January 2014 | Report
Nuclear Threat Initiative

"The 2014 Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) Nuclear Materials Security Index is the second edition of a first-of-its-kind public assessment of nuclear materials security conditions around the world. Developed with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the NTI Index was created (a) to assess the security of weapons-usable nuclear materials around the world and (b) to encourage governments to take actions and provide assurances about the security of the world’s deadliest materials. It has sparked international discussions about priorities required to strengthen security." (click here to view)

Steps to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism: Recommendations Based on the U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment
October 2013 | Paper
Harvard Kennedy School | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
By Matthew Bunn, Valentin Kuznetsov, Martin B. Malin, Yuri Morozov, Simon Saradzhyan, William H. Tobey, Viktor I. Yesin, and Pavel S. Zolotarev

Despite an array of mechanisms established to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism, there are still nuclear security vulnerabilities in a number of countries, incidents of illicit nuclear material and radioactive source and components trafficking. This study outlines concrete steps for the United States and Russia to take in leading international efforts to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism. (click here to view)

Living in the Era of Megaterror 
September 2012 | Op-Ed
New York Times | International Herald Tribune
By Graham Allison

"Forty years ago this week at the Munich Olympics of 1972, Palestinian terrorists conducted one of the most dramatic terrorist attacks of the 20th century. The kidnapping and massacre of 11 Israeli athletes attracted days of around-the-clock global news coverage of Black September’s anti-Israel message. Three decades later, on 9/11, Al Qaeda killed nearly 3,000 individuals at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, announcing a new era of megaterror. In an act that killed more people than Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, a band of terrorists headquartered in ungoverned Afghanistan demonstrated that individuals and small groups can kill on a scale previously the exclusive preserve of states." (click here to view)

Can Seoul Summit Tackle Biggest Threat to U.S. Security - Nuclear Terrorism?
March 2012 | Op-Ed
Christian Science Monitor
By Graham Allison

"Why did President Obama fly halfway around the world to Seoul, South Korea, for the second Nuclear Security Summit? What can the 50 world leaders who meet today and tomorrow plausibly accomplish?" (click here to view)

Washington Can Work: Celebrating Twenty Years With Zero Nuclear Terrorism
December 2011 | Op-Ed
Huffington Post
By Graham Allison

"As Washington antics undermine our confidence in government, it is instructive to think back 20 years to challenges a President and Congress faced in December, 1991. President George H. W. Bush was finishing the 3rd year of his first term, exhausted by the international avalanche that began shortly after he took office." (click here to view)

Nuclear Jihad: A Clear and Present Danger?
July 2011 | Book
Potomac Books Inc. 
By Todd M. Masse

"The most visible face of terrorism—which is embedded in the conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the border region between the two countries—could mask an even bigger danger....that of nuclear terrorism....Masse provides a much-needed objective assessment of the nuclear terrorist threat and suggests a range of policy options to address the danger." (click here to view)

"Dirty Bombs": Technical Background, Attack Prevention and Response, Issues for Congress
June 2011
Congressional Research Service
By Jonathan Medalia

This report outlines the danger posed by radiological dispersal devices (RDDs), as well as national- and international-level efforts to prevent RDD acquisition by terrorists. The likelihood of an RDD event has decreased due to the work of the NRC, NNSA, and IAEA, and the National Response Framework provides a comprehensive response plan to a domestic RDD incident. CRS also outlines the dilemmas facing congress, such as what weight Congress should give countering RDDs vs other CBRN weapons, if Congress should prioritize securing domestic or international radiological sources, and if cities should establish radiological detection systems. (click here to view)

Threat Assessment
May 2010 | Best Practice Guide
World Institute for Nuclear Security (WINS)

"This WINS International Best Practice Guide describes the threat assessment process, why it is so important for nuclear operators, how they can participate in the process, and the potential problems that could arise if they do not actively participate in it." 

Next Steps to Strengthen Nuclear Security and Prevent Nuclear Terrorism
April 2011 | Presentation
By Matthew Bunn

Matthew Bunn presented "Next Steps to Strengthen Nuclear Security and Prevent Nuclear Terrorism" at a Fissile Materials Working Group event in Vienna, Austria on the occasion of the 1-year anniversary of the first Nuclear Security Summit." (click here to view)


Nuclear Security
April 2010 | Op-Ed
New York Times | International Herald Tribune
By Graham Allison, Mohamed ElBaradei, and Ernesto Zedillo

"The 47 heads of state who will assemble in Washington next week for the world's first Nuclear Security Summit should focus like a laser beam on the biggest potential threat to civilization....The big insight that motivates the summit is that the leaders assembled there have in their power the ways and means to successfully prevent nuclear terrorism. The key to success is to deny terrorists the means to achieve their deadliest aspirations." (click here to view)

Peddling Peril: Chapter 8 - Al-Qaeda's Bomb
March 2010 | Book Excerpt
Foreign Policy | Free Press
By David Albright

"The image of Osama bin Laden discussing nuclear weapons around a campfire with two former senior Pakistani nuclear engineers is the stuff of movies. Yet it actually happened in August 2001, when A.Q. Khan's deal with Libya was in full swing....Despite the improvements in intelligence since 2001, terrorist work on nuclear weapons is incredibly difficult to discover…. Stopping terrorists from detonating a nuclear explosive is a crucial challenge. [This account] represents a true nightmare, but should also be an urgent wake-up call.” (click here to view)

Proliferation and Terrorism: Big Hype or Biggest Threat?
March 2010 | Article
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
By Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

"On 9/11, Al Qaeda rewrote the terrorist playbook by executing mass casualty attacks against strategic U.S. targets. In essence, these attacks ended one era and ushered in a new one. It is an age in which a few terrorists hold the means to alter the course of history with a single blow. Having set a standard that dares to change the world, it is likely only a matter of time before 9/11 is eclipsed by an even more devastating event. So, why has it not happened yet?" (click here to view)

Nuclear Disorder: Surveying Atomic Threats
January 2010 | Journal Article
Foreign Affairs
By Graham Allison

This article argues that trendlines are propelling the world towards a "tipping point" for proliferation and nuclear terrorism. It argues that President Obama’s agenda is the most substantial effort to revitalize the nuclear order since President Kennedy. (click here to view)

The Global Politics of Countering Nuclear Terrorism: A Supply-Side Approach
January 2010 | Book
Routledge
Edited by Cristina Hansell and William C. Potter

"The most difficult challenge for a terrorist organization seeking to build a nuclear weapon or improvised nuclear device is obtaining fissile material, either plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU)....This book contains chapters examining the various uses for this material and possible alternatives; the threat posed by this material; the economic, political and strategic obstacles to international efforts to end the use of HEU for commercial and research purposes; as well as new national and international measures that should be taken to further the elimination of HEU." (click here to view)

Securing the Bomb Series
2002-2010 | Report
Nuclear Threat Initiative
By Matthew Bunn

"The NTI-commissioned reports won readership among journalists and policy experts, triggered legislation in Congress and helped frame the debate for political candidates. The comprehensive reports on nuclear materials security are researched and written under the leadership of Dr. Matthew Bunn at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs." (click here to view)

Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: Evolving Forms of the Nuclear Genie
October 2009 | Presentation
By Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

In this presentation, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen traces the history of nuclear terrorism in the 21st century beginning with theory and practice, analyzes the implications of 9/11 and weighs in on the reconstruction of the global nuclear order. (click here to view)

Assessing Radiological Weapons: Attack Methods and Estimated Effects
Fall 2009 | Journal Article
Defense Against Terrorism Review
By Charles D. Ferguson and Michelle M. Smith

"In the decade since September 11, 2001, a terrorist attack using radiological materials—usually referred to as a “dirty bomb,” but actually encompassing other means of dispersal—has sometimes seemed inevitable. But terrorists have not yet carried out such an attack....This article seeks to address technical questions associated with radiological terrorism. It first presents a summary of the commercially available radioactive sources, dispersal methods, and exposure pathways that could be deployed in a radiological attack." (click here to view)

The Armageddon Test
August 2009 | Discussion Paper
Harvard Kennedy School | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
By Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

"Understanding the anatomy of terrorist nuclear intent is essential in order to successfully confront this threat. Two terrorist groups have learned many practical lessons on the difficulties of acquiring a nuclear bomb. The Japanese cult group Aum Shinrikyo and al Qaeda have examined all three pathways to a bomb over years of persistent efforts managed at the top of their respective organizations. Although the terrorist groups worked independently, they shared striking similarities in their thinking and approaches that provide valuable insight into the intrinsic nature of the nuclear terrorism threat." (click here to view)

Nuclear Security in Pakistan: Reducing the Risks of Nuclear Terrorism
July 2009 | Article
Arms Control Today
By Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

"Today's frightening instability in Pakistan comes in a world in which global terrorists are actively seeking nuclear weapons and the materials and expertise needed to make them, a quest that has been underway for more than a decade....Fortunately, it appears that the odds of such a security breakdown are very low, at least from an assessment based on the current realities of the security situation in Pakistan....With the passage of time, the odds steadily increase that Pakistan will face a serious test of its nuclear security." (click here to view)

On Nuclear Terrorism
June 2009 | Book
Harvard University Press
By Michael A. Levi

"Surveying the broad universe of plots and defenses, this accessible account shows how a wide-ranging defense that integrates the tools of weapon and materials security, law enforcement, intelligence, border controls, diplomacy, and the military can multiply, intensify, and compound the possibility that nuclear terrorists will fail." (click here to view)

Jihadists and Weapons of Mass Destruction 
February 2009 | Book
CRC Press
Edited by Gary Ackerman and Jeremy Tamsett

"Written for professionals, academics, and policymakers working at the forefront of counterterrorism efforts, Jihadists and Weapons of Mass Destruction is an authoritative and comprehensive work addressing the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the hands of jihadists, both historically and looking toward the future threat environment." (click here to view)

Defusing Armageddon: Inside NEST, America's Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad
February 2009 | Book
W.W. Norton & Company
By Jeffrey T. Richelson

"Jeffrey T. Richelson reveals the history of the Nuclear Emergency Support Team, from the events leading to its creation in 1974 to today. Defusing Armageddon provides a behind-the-scenes look at NEST's personnel, operations, and detection and disablement equipment--employed in response to attempts at nuclear extortion, lost and stolen nuclear material, crashed nuclear-powered Soviet satellites, and al Qaeda's quest for nuclear weapons." (click here to view)

Al-Qaida's Quest for Weapons of Mass Destruction: The History Behind the Hype
December 2008 | Book
VDM Verlag Dr. Müller
By Anne Stenersen

"Ever since the late 1990s, it has been claimed that the threat of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) terrorism from al-Qaida is real and growing. Yet, few academic studies have been focused towards analyzing al-Qaida's actual interest in developing a CBRN capability. This book seeks to investigate al-Qaida's interest in CBRN weapons, as reflected by statements and activities on various levels within the network between 1996- 2007" (click here to view)

Deterring State Sponsorship of Nuclear Terrorism
September 2008 | Report
Council on Foreign Relations
By Michael A. Levi

"The basis of nuclear doctrine during the Cold War was deterrence. Nuclear powers were deterred from attacking each other by the fear of retaliation. Today, much of the concern over possible nuclear attack comes in the context of rogue states and terrorism....Michael A. Levi analyzes this aspect of deterrence in the post–Cold War world, as well as what to do if deterrence breaks down....The report also discusses the role of nuclear attribution—the science of identifying the origin of nuclear materials—in deterring transfers, an essential link in assigning responsibility to governments for transfers of nuclear materials." (click here to view)

Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?
September 2008 | Book
Prometheus Books
By Brian M. Jenkins

"A leading expert on terrorism and a senior adviser at the RAND Corporation, Brian Jenkins addresses the contentious issue of nuclear terror in this exhaustive study that seeks to separate what we fear from what we might reasonably expect. The author traces the debate over nuclear terror from the Cold War to its contemporary nexus with al-Qaeda, noting that 9/11 renewed all the old debates and significantly altered our perceptions of what was plausible." (click here to view)

100 Grams (and Counting...): Notes from the Nuclear Underworld
June 2008 | Report
Harvard Kennedy School | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
By Michael Bronner

This report on the 2006 seizure of weapon-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) in Georgia provides insights on both nuclear smugglers and those trying to stop them. It highlights the urgency of the threat of nuclear theft and smuggling, and the dangerous gap that still exists between that threat and the scope and pace of the U.S. and international response. (click here to view)

Reducing Nuclear and Radiological Terrorism Threats
July 2007 | Conference Paper
Harvard Kennedy School | Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
By Tom Bielefeld and Matthew Bunn

"Urgent actions are needed to prevent a nuclear or radiological 9/11.  Terrorists are actively seeking nuclear weapons and Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDDs) and the materials to make them.  There are scores of sites where the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons exist, in dozens of countries worldwide.  There are thousands of sites worldwide where radiological materials exist....This paper describes the nuclear and radiological terrorism threats, analyzes the actions taken so far to address these threats, and recommends further actions going forward." (click here to view)

The Bomb in the Backyard
October 2006 | Article
Foreign Policy
By Jeffrey G. Lewis and Peter D. Zimmerman

"Osama bin Laden has not yet succeeded in launching a nuclear attack. But it isn't because he can't. With enriched uranium, a handful of military supplies available on the Internet, and a small team of terrorists, he could assemble a nuclear bomb in a matter of months. This is how it will happen.” (click here to view)

Confronting the Specter of Nuclear Terrorism
September 2006 | Book
Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science
By Graham Allison, Matthew Bunn, Stephen van Evera, Robert L. Gallucci , Bonnie Jenkins, William J. Perry, Anthony Wier, Micah Zenko,

"Most world leaders agree that nuclear terrorism represents the gravest international security challenge today. Many scholars and practitioners, however, argue that the United States remains ill-prepared to cope with this serious and real threat....The papers in this volume take a comprehensive historical look at the development of the threat of nuclear terrorism, and assesses how that threat has changed over time. The highly distinguished list of contributors to this thought-provoking issue provides readers with an authoritative overview of this critical and timely topic. " (click here to view)

Nuclear Terrorism: A Disheartening Dissent
June 2006 | Journal Article
Survival
By Anna M. Pluta and Peter D. Zimmerman

"A notable recent plea for calm comes from Robin Frost, who, in a December 2005 IISS Adelphi Paper, argues ‘that the risk of nuclear terrorism, especially true nuclear terrorism employing bombs powered by nuclear fission, is overstated, and that popular wisdom on the topic is significantly flawed’. We find this too complacent. The fissile material is available, or could become available, from a Russian nuclear stockpile that remains dangerously insecure. An improvised nuclear device would be difficult, but not too difficult, to build." (click here to view)

Improvised Nuclear Devices and Nuclear Terrorism
2006 | Paper
United Nations | Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission
By Charles D. Ferguson and William C. Potter

"Terrorists seeking to unleash massive violence and destruction may climb the escalation ladder to the highest rungs: nuclear weapons.....If, however, they are deterred by the security measures surrounding nuclear armaments, they may instead decide to acquire fissile material by purchase, diversion, or force for the purpose of fabricating a crude nuclear bomb, known more formally as an “improvised nuclear device." (click here to view)

The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism
June 2005 | Book
Routledge
By Charles D. Ferguson and William C. Potter

"The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism, a new book from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, assesses the motivations and capabilities of terrorist organizations to acquire and use nuclear weapons, to fabricate and and detonate crude nuclear explosives, to strike nuclear power plants and other nuclear facilities, and to build and employ radiological weapons or "dirty bombs."" (click here to view)

The Seven Myths of Nuclear Terrorism
April 2005 | Journal Article
Current History
By Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier

"If world leaders were convinced that the risk of a terrorist nuclear attack on a major city is substantial, and that there are actions they could take that would dramatically reduce that risk, they presumably would act, and act swiftly, to diminish this deadly threat. Therefore, dispelling the key myths that lead officials and policy elites to downplay the danger is crucial to building momentum for an effective response." (click here to view)

Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe
August 2004 | Book
Henry Holt & Company
By Graham Allison

In this book, Belfer Center Director Graham Allison provides in plain and accessible terms the “who, what, where, when and how” of impending terrorist strikes and thus delineates the challenge we face.  He also sets out an ambitious but feasible agenda to prevent this terrible threat. (click here to view)

America's Achilles' Heel: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Terrorism and Covert Attack
June 1998 | Book
M.I.T. Press
By Richard A. Falkenrath, Robert Newman, and Bradley Thayer

"Nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons delivered covertly by terrorists or hostile governments pose a significant and growing threat to the United States and other countries....Covert attack is hard to deter or prevent, and NBC weapons suitable for covert attack are available to a growing range of states and groups hostile to the United States. At the same time, constraints on their use appear to be eroding. This volume analyzes the nature and limits of the covert NBC threat and proposes a measured set of policy responses, focused on improving intelligence and consequence-management capabilities to reduce U.S. vulnerability." (click here to view)

Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: The Report and Papers of the International Task Force on Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism
February 1987 | Book
Lexington Books
Edited by Paul A. Leventhal and Yonah Alexander

"It is striking, if not surprising, that so much attention is paid to the least likely use of nuclear weapons, war between the superpowers, and so little to the more likely disasters-nuclear wars in the Third World or nuclear terrorism. The work of this task force is a welcome attempt to address the last. Its warning is measured-there is no evidence that terrorist groups yet have the combination of will and ability to build nuclear devices-yet even a plausible nuclear hoax could be terrifying."(click here to view)

The Curve of Binding Energy: A Journey into the Awesome and Alarming World of Theodore B. Taylor
April 1974 | Book
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
By John McPhee

"Theodore B. Taylor was among the most ingenious engineers of the nuclear age....But in his later years, Taylor became increasingly concerned that compact and powerful bombs could be easily built not just by nations employing experts such as himself, but by single individuals with modest technical ability and perseverance. John McPhee tours American nuclear installations with Taylor, and we are treated to a grim, eye-opening account of just how close we are to witnessing terrorist attacks using homemade nuclear weaponry. The Curve of Binding Energy is compelling writing about an urgently important topic." (click here to view)