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The U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment on Nuclear Terrorism

In June 2011, for the first time, experts from the world’s two leading nuclear powers released a joint report on the global threat of nuclear terrorism. The report, titled “The U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment on Nuclear Terrorism,” released in Cambridge, Mass., and in Moscow, is the result of a yearlong collaboration between nuclear security experts at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.

The assessment’s co-lead authors are Rolf Mowatt-Larson, former director of intelligence and counter-intelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy, and Pavel S. Zolotarev, a retired Russian army general and deputy director of the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies.

The report calls for a “panhuman” effort to preventing terrorist groups from carrying out a nuclear attack. “If current approaches toward eliminating the threat are not replaced with a sense of urgency and resolve,” the assessment warns, “the question will become not if, but when, where, and on what scale the first act of nuclear terrorism occurs.

In laying out the nature of the threat and recommending ways to mitigate it, the assessment proceeds in the following steps:

•Identifying Possible Pathways to a Nuclear Attack. After distinguishing between nuclear terrorism (the use of a nuclear explosive device) and radiological terrorism (the use of radiological dispersal devices – “dirty bombs” – or attacks on nuclear facilities), the report lays out the different ways in which terrorist groups might carry out both.

Terrorist groups could achieve a nuclear explosion through four pathways: stealing or purchasing a nuclear weapon on the black market; using an improvised nuclear device with the use of fissile material either stolen or purchased on the black market; building an explosive device with fissile material they’ve produced themselves, such as highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium; or purchasing a weapon or necessary materials from a rogue state such as North Korea.

To achieve radiological terrorism, groups could construct dirty bombs with stolen or purchased radioactive materials, or sabotage existing nuclear facilities. The blueprint for such attacks already exists, the authors point out, in the world’s two worst nuclear accidents so far – the 1986 explosion at Russia’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, and the Fukushima Daichi reactor meltdowns following the March 2011 tsunami. “One important lesson of the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents” wrote the authors, “is that what can happen as a re­sult of an accident can also happen as a result of a premeditated action . . . Terrorists will most likely try to damage a reactor’s support and water supply systems as well as its con­trol and protection system to cause a heat explosion of the reactor with subsequent demolition of the reactor and the building in which it is located.”

•Describing the efforts of terrorist groups to follow several of these pathways. Today, two major groups are the second and third in history (the Japanese terror sect Aum Shinrikyo, which carried out poison gas attacks on Tokyo subways in 1995, was the first) to actively seek nuclear materials and the expertise needed to carry out attacks.

Al Qaeda has been working for years to acquire a bomb, and has even conducted explosive tests in the Afghan desert. Despite the death of its leader, Osama bin Laden, the report warns that al Qaeda’s nuclear ambitions are still very real and alarmingly plausible.

In Russia’s North Caucasus region, several terrorist networks operating in the republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkaria are committed to catastrophic attacks. They have conducted reconnaissance operations at nuclear weapon storage sites, plotted to hijack a nuclear submarine armed with nuclear missiles, and planted radiological materials at sites throughout Moscow.

•Analyzing U.S. and Russian vulnerabilities to nuclear terrorism, as well as long-term trends influencing these vulnerabilities. The main hitch in mitigating the threat of nuclear terrorism is that the United States and Russia are no longer the world’s only nuclear powers. The report evaluates the factors and trends, worldwide, that both increase and decrease the likelihood of nuclear terrorism.

•Recommendations for preventing nuclear terrorism. The report ends with seven concrete recommendations, including:

• a reduction, as much as possible, in the number of locations where nuclear weapons, HEU, and plutonium are stored, and protecting these stocks against all plausible terrorist and criminal threats.

• coordinated leadership between the two countries that hold the largest nuclear stockpiles and have the most experience in nuclear security

• an international cooperation and information-sharing network between law enforcement and security services – especially in Islamic states actively engaged in constraining the actions of extremists.

• continued efforts to eliminate the senior leadership of al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.

The full text of the report – in both English and Russian – is available at

Upon the assessment’s release, Zolotarev, co-lead author, remarked that neither the United States nor the Russian Federation needed to rely on mutual nuclear deterrence anymore. “As a result,” Zolotarev said, “we pay insufficient attention to the threat of nuclear terrorism, which constitutes a more real threat than the enormous arsenals of nuclear weapons in both countries. The threat of nuclear terrorism is increasing. Our response should anticipate the dynamics of the threat rather than lag behind it.”


Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...