Skip navigation
Nuclear Safeguards Education Portal
  

Nuclear Terrorism

Army and Air National Guard members practice extracting victims trapped in rubble during a training exercise simulating the detonation of an improvised nuclear device in a major metropolitan area. (Photo Source: US Army National Guard)
Army and Air National Guard members practice extracting victims trapped in rubble during a training exercise simulating the detonation of an improvised nuclear device in a major metropolitan area. (Photo Source: US Army National Guard) 

Terrorism is a form of nonconventional warfare that relies on the use of violence to promulgate fear in an adversary.  It is often adopted by small extremist organizations to compensate for a weakness in numbers and destructive capability in pursuit of political concessions from a state. The violence is characterized by actions such as bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings, and it is directed not only at government targets but civilians as well.

Nuclear terrorism is the actual or potential use of nuclear or radiological materials to generate fear in the pursuit of political ends.  It includes the acquisition of, uses or threatened uses of, or attack on nuclear materials or facilities, as well as the resort to false threats or hoaxes that would have the same effect.  Besides the detonation of a nuclear weapon, there are several other subclasses of nuclear terrorism:

  • Radiological terrorism: nuclear terrorism involving the uses of radiological materials or radiation producing devices/materials
  • Nuclear sabotage: nuclear terrorism involving sabotage of a nuclear facility or operation that uses nuclear materials and results in a radiological release
  • Radiological sabotage: nuclear terrorism involving the sabotage of a facility or operation that uses radioactive materials or radiation producing devices

In addition to a conventional nuclear weapon, there are several other types of nuclear terrorism devices:

  • Improvised Nuclear Device (IND): a device intended to cause a yield-producing nuclear explosion but which may not be deliverable, safe, and secure
  • Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD): any device, other than a nuclear explosive device, specifically designed to employ radioactive material by disseminating it to cause destruction, damage, or injury by means of the radiation produced by the decay of such material
  • Radiation Emitting Device (RED): any device that produces radiation that is used to cause harm via the radiation produced by the device without disseminating or dispersing the material


The chart, below, comes from Ferguson's and Potter's The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism  and outlines various terrorist actions and the traits and motivations of the adversary interested in using them (for mobile devices, it may be necessary to scroll or swipe to see all data on this table, or click here to view larger version of the full table).          

Traits Steal Nuclear
Device
Steal Nuclear
 Material for IND
Sabotage Nuclear
Facility
Steal Radioactive
Material for RDD or RED
Motivation Extreme; desire to cause mass deaths, destruction; likely limited to apocalyptic and politico-religious groups Extreme; desire to cause mass deaths, destruction; likely limited to apocalyptic and politico-religious groups Very high; desire to cause great property damage, disruption, some loss of life Very high; desire to cause great property damage, disruption, some loss of life
Organizational Skills Very high Very high Very high  Moderate 
Geographic Reach Multi-country capability required to detonate Russian, Pakistani, or Indian device in US Multi-country capability required to detonate device built from foreign-origin, weapons-usable, fissile material in US Single country Single country 
Financial Resources High High Moderate to high Modest
Technical Skills High High; moderate for some  scenarios  Moderate to high Modest
Number of groups (in 2004) Few (possibly none currently able to meet all criteria for foreign country incident) Few (possibly none currently able to meet all criteria for foreign country incident) 10+ 10-100's 

 from C.D. Ferguson and W.C. Potter, The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute for International Studies (2004).  Click here to view larger version of the full table

Page 3 / 11