Nuclear Terror: How Big a Threat?

Steve Chapman has a typically smart piece describing John Mueller’s provocative “who’s afraid of nuclear terror?” argument. (.pdf)

The events required [for nuclear terror to] happen include a multitude of herculean tasks. First, a terrorist group has to get a bomb or fissile material, perhaps from Russia’s inventory of decommissioned warheads. If that were easy, one would have already gone missing.

Besides, those devices are probably no longer a danger, since weapons that are not scrupulously maintained (as those have not been) quickly become what one expert calls “radioactive scrap metal.” If terrorists were able to steal a Pakistani bomb, they would still have to defeat the arming codes and other safeguards designed to prevent unauthorized use. As for Iran, no nuclear state has ever given a bomb to an ally—for reasons even the Iranians can grasp. Stealing some 100 pounds of bomb fuel would require help from rogue individuals inside some government who are prepared to jeopardize their own lives. The terrorists, notes Mueller, would then have to spirit it “hundreds of miles out of the country over unfamiliar terrain, and probably while being pursued by security forces.”

Then comes the task of building a bomb. It’s not something you can gin up with spare parts and power tools in your garage. It requires millions of dollars, a safe haven and advanced equipment—plus people with specialized skills, lots of time and a willingness to die for the cause. And if Al Qaeda could make a prototype, another obstacle would emerge: There is no guarantee it would work, and there is no way to test it…

Chapman concludes:

None of this means we should stop trying to minimize the risk by securing nuclear stockpiles, monitoring terrorist communications and improving port screening. But it offers good reason to think that in this war, it appears, the worst eventuality is one that will never happen.

My eyebrows went up an inch or three the first time I heard this argument at the APSA convention last year, but as with so much of John Mueller’s work, when you stop to think about his arguments, it’s hard to find a genuinely weak link in his logic. In any event, it’s a discussion that deserves to be had.