with this set of possibilities. It then draws on recent relevant experience and analyses to address what is being done to limit risk and what else could be done. The paper closes with the case for increasing international cooperation (and increasing Indo-U.S. cooperation in particular) in order to reduce the chance of a successful terrorist attack on a nuclear-energy facility in any country.


Nuclear-terrorism dangers can be divided into three categories: (1) dirty bombs, meaning conventional explosives or incendiary devices that disperse radioactive materials, (2) attacks on nuclear-weapon or nuclear-energy facilities, and (3) terrorist acquisition and use of nuclear-explosive weapons.33 Further, the mere assertion of the capability to carry out one of these kinds of attacks—or an explicit threat to do so at a particular time and place—may serve terrorist purposes, even if an attack does not occur. The public’s deeply ingrained fear of nuclear weapons and nuclear radiation tends to amplify not only the impact if an attack is carried out, but also the terror effect of threats to do so.

Of these three categories of nuclear-terrorism dangers, the first one—the dirty bomb—is the easiest for terrorists to execute. In most circumstances, however, a dirty bomb would cause relatively few immediate fatalities beyond those caused directly by the chemical high-explosive used. (A conceivable exception could be the use of an incendiary device to disperse a potent radionuclide into the ventilation system of an office building.) The largest impacts of most dirty bomb events would be in property damage—the costs of temporarily abandoning and cleaning up the contaminated areas—and in the fear and demoralization created in the public.

Success in the second category of danger—attacks on nuclear-weapon or nuclear-energy facilities—would be far harder for terrorists to achieve, but could create considerably higher casualties. The impact of such an attack could involve hundreds or even thousands of immediate fatalities, tens of thousands of delayed deaths from radiation-induced cancers, and immense economic damage from the contamination of territory.34 Success in the third category—that of acquiring and detonating a nuclear weapon—is likely to be the most difficult for a terrorist group to achieve. Nonetheless, such an attack could produce hundreds of thousands of immediate deaths (from the effects of blast and burns of a detonation in the heart of a major city), as well as numerous additional casualties from fallout and immense property damage.


Nuclear-explosive weapons are those where most of the energy release comes from nuclear reactions rather than from chemical high-explosives.


It has been well known since the 1957, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission study entitled “Theoretical Possibilities and Consequences of Major Accidents in Large Nuclear Power Plants” (also known as “The Brookhaven Report”), that a large accident at a nuclear power reactor could produce thousands of prompt fatalities and delayed cancer fatalities in the many tens of thousands to more than 100,000. Subsequent studies have added many refinements but have not changed the upper-end figures. Subsequently, studies of large accidental releases from spent-fuel pools have generated similar results. If accidents at nuclear-power facilities could generate damages of these magnitudes, so could an ‘accident’ deliberately engineered by terrorists.

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