Preventing Nuclear and Radiological Terrorism

There is no single solution to the terrifying possibility of nuclear and radiological terrorism. Still, that has not stopped many from trying to pinpoint one. Some have proposed a strong focus on controlling nuclear and radiological materials in cooperative countries, particularly in the states of the former Soviet Union. Others have emphasized the need to challenge so-called rogue states, like Iraq, which might actively supply dangerous weapons to terrorists. Still others have argued that homeland security, understood narrowly as a mix of border controls, domestic surveillance, and emergency response capacity, should be the primary means of addressing the threat. To be successful, though, a strategy must combine these three approaches.

An effective strategy will also need to carefully distinguish the nuclear and radiological problems, which are too often lumped together. One recent study estimated that a small nuclear weapon detonated at midday in New York City could quickly kill over five hundred thousand people; in contrast, it is difficult to imagine a credible radiological weapon that would cause any near-term deaths. This alone suggests that the nuclear threat be maintained as a clear priority. Moreover, nuclear weapons are significantly more difficult to obtain or construct than are radiological weapons, while radiological weapons are much easier to defend against than their nuclear cousins. These differences should play a major role in tailoring solutions to the two problems.

Designing strategies for preventing nuclear and radiological terrorism thus requires finding different admixtures of the three broad approaches, each appropriate to different weapons problems. Rogue states should be a major concern with regards to nuclear terrorism, but are largely irrelevant to the radiological weapons problem. Cooperative materials security is extremely valuable in confronting both problems, though particularly useful in addressing the nuclear dimension. And homeland security—in particular, border control and emergency response—is far more valuable in dealing with the potential for radiological terrorism than it is for preventing nuclear terror.