Nuclear Terrorism After 9/11, Issue 360

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Routledge for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2005 - History - 88 pages
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The very mention of nuclear terrorism is enough to rouse strong reactions, and understandably so, because it combines the most terrifying weapons and the most threatening of people in a single phrase. The possibility that terrorists could obtain and use nuclear weapons deserves careful analysis, but discussion has all too often been contaminated with exaggeration, even hysteria. For example, it has been claimed that nuclear terrorism poses an 'existential threat' to the United States.

This Adelphi Paper develops a more measured analysis of the risk of terrorists detonating a true fission device. The problem is attacked from two perspectives: the considerable, possibly insurmountable, technical challenges involved in obtaining a functional nuclear weapon, whether 'home-made' or begged, borrowed or stolen from a state arsenal; and the question of the strategic, political and psychological motivations to 'go nuclear'. The conclusions are that nuclear terrorism is a less significant threat than is commonly believed, and that, among terrorists, Muslim extremists are not the most likely to use nuclear weapons.

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I agree with the two preceding reviewers that Frost's treatment is flawed in some respects (particularly in choosing to focus on the risk of a terrorist group constructing a plutonium implosion device, rather than a much simpler gun-type device using highly enriched uranium). However, I believe Frost's overall conclusion, that the risk of nuclear terrorism is much lower than the conventional wisdom would have it, provides some needed balance to a debate that too easily becomes captive to irrational fears and unexamined assumptions. Just for that, Frost's work deserves a read. 

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About the author (2005)

Robin M. Frost is an analyst with the Government of Canada. He holds degrees in political science, psychology, and journalism, and has published papers on nuclear terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and other subjects. He previously worked as an academic, as a broadcast news journalist, and in the software industry.

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