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Global Catastrophic Risks Conference - Abstracts

Catastrophic Nuclear Terrorism: A Preventable Peril

William Potter and Gary Ackerman

One can conceive of at least three potentially catastrophic events involving the energy of the atom: a nuclear accident in which massive quantities of radiation inadvertently are released into the environment; nuclear war among nation-states; and nuclear violence inflicted by non-state actors. This lecture focuses on the latter threat--the dangers posed by nuclear terrorism, a phenomenon that lies at the nexus between what are widely considered to be two of the primary security threats of the modern era.

Non-state actors have essentially four mechanisms by which they can exploit civilian and military nuclear assets intentionally to serve their terrorist goals: the dispersal of radioactive material; attacks against or sabotage of nuclear facilities; the theft, purchase, or receipt of fissile material leading to the fabrication and detonation of a crude nuclear explosive; and the theft, purchase, or receipt and detonation of an intact nuclear weapon. All of these nuclear threats are real, all merit the attention of the international community, and all require the expenditure of significant resources to reduce the likelihood and impact of their occurrence. The threats, however, are different and vary widely in their probability of occurrence, their consequences for human and financial loss, and the ease with which one can intervene to reduce their destructive outcome. This lecture will focus on the two forms of ‘high consequence’ nuclear terrorism, those involving INDs and intact nuclear weapons.

We will examine the theoretical requirements for engaging in nuclear terrorism, outline the current evidence for and possible future shape of the threat, and then discusse the potential short- and long-term global consequences of nuclear terrorism. We conclude with policy recommendations for mitigating this particular species of global catastrophic risk. Throughout, we approach the issue from the dual perspective of the “supply side” of the risk (which, inter alia, concerns the availability of fissile materials and the capabilities of non-state actors in this context) and the “demand side” (which focuses on the motivations and identity of potential perpetrators of nuclear terrorism)