A 21st Century Perspective on Nuclear Proliferation and Nuclear Terrorism


By Prof. Natividad Carpintero-Santamaría, General Secretary of the Instituto de Fusión Nuclear “Guillermo Velarde”, Spain.

The 21st century is characterized by a complex international scenario that makes it difficult to forecast its repercussions in the medium and long term. Globalization and asymmetric threats contribute to diversify adversaries and motives that could lead to inexorable conflicts in global security.

Nuclear Proliferation

From 1949 to 1991 the world witnessed political episodes of high-tension in which the use of nuclear weapons has been observed. These tensions led to the establishing of the Assured Mutual Destruction (AMD) doctrine that contributed to avoid a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the USSR. This confrontation would have also dragged their respective orbit countries (NATO and Warsaw Pact) into a massive destruction. As Spanish General Manuel Diez Alegría, Joint Chief of Staff (1970) said: “In an unrestricted nuclear war between the United States and the USSR, the victor would be Australia”.

The necessity to control the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, its production, development and stockpiling lead to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) that entered into force in 1970 in the middle of an impressive nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. By 1967, the US had an arsenal of 31,255 nuclear warheads and by 1986 the USSR had the historical record of 45,000 nuclear warheads.

India, Israel, Pakistan, South Africa and Spain did not join the NPT. Spain signed it in 1987. In 1993, President Frederik de Klerk officially announced South Africa voluntary renouncement to nuclear weapons programs that had started in secrecy in 1974 under the Prime Minister John Vorster. South African abundant uranium reserves made the country to be a main exporter of uranium to the United States and the United Kingdom.

One of the challenges of the NPT is the control of sensitive nuclear cycle. But the reality is that the NPT has not reached its objectives to achieve an effective nuclear disarmament. This is partly due to the several gaps of the original NPT document that did not determine in an explicit manner some crucial issues, such as the enriching of uranium for nuclear power plants that could be used to obtain weapon grade uranium (WGU). This point remains to be agreed upon.

From right to left, President Frederik de Klerk and Professors Ayman Khalil and Natividad Carpintero-Santamaría (Amman, 2008) (Photo provided by the author)

In 1991, the nuclear balance disappeared and led to a new security order in which former nuclear security patterns met critical challenges: the emergence of non-state actors that jeopardized global security with proven capacities to access nuclear materials for hostile purposes. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an overwhelming concern of the risk that WMD material could fall into the wrong hands, or that the enormous military complex and excess of weapons expertise could be misused. It was in this environment that the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program was initiated by US Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar. A key element of the CTR program was accomplished by linking the scientific expertise and know-how in the US and Europe, with the scientific experts in Russia and the former Soviet states. A sense of urgency drove that program and its central elements centered on locking down dangerous material, tearing down or converting dangerous facilities and engaging those with weapons expertise in civilian or pure scientific projects. In the 1990s, our Institute of Nuclear Fusion carried out a close collaboration with the European Commission for the technical evaluation of the International Science and Technology Center ISTC projects.

In 2010, the greatest challenge to international security shifted to the threat of global proliferation of WMD and the risk of WMD terrorism. To acknowledge the contribution of the CTR to nuclear security and its founders US Senators Lugar and Nunn, we jointly organized with the US Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) the International Conference on Science and International Security: Addressing the Challenges of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism (ISPAT 2010). The conference was hold in Madrid on November 8-9, 2010. The meeting brought together international leaders and policy makers, that along with leading scientists carried out an interesting and good approach to explore WMD key issues and challenges to international security in regards to science and security.

In 2020, according to the United Nations around 13,400 nuclear weapons presently remain in the world. The number of nuclear weapons in alert has significantly increased compared to the past and nuclear states are investing billions of dollars to modernise and upgrade their nuclear arsenal, strategic missiles and UAVs capabilities.

Nuclear and Radiological Terrorism

Nuclear terrorism is an evil application of nuclear energy. It could be perpetrated using any of the following means: 1) by crude or improvised nuclear devices (INDs); 2) by radiological dispersion devices (RDDs), also known as dirty or radioactive bombs; or 3) by attack on nuclear facilities (ANF).

Improvised Nuclear Devices (INDs) are atomic bombs that due to a deficient design, or the materials used or/and a poor-quality control of their components, they produce when exploding a yield lower than 1 kiloton of energy. The INDs can be made of uranium or plutonium but the project, the components, the quality control and their functioning are radically different. The uranium bombs would be the most suitable potential bombs for terrorism because they can be designed and made under a low-medium-technology profile. In this type of bombs, only from 1% to 5% of the WGU undergoes fission. However, the probability to reach the nominal yield is big. They can also be disassembled, and their components be easily transported by means of clandestine entrances in a country (private airports and ports, etc). The problem for the fabrication of these bombs lies in the acquisition of the WGU. It is unlikely that terrorist groups today could develop and manage the substantial infrastructure that would be required to produce enriched uranium or plutonium for weapons. However, nuclear weapons and weapon materials could be stolen by terrorists either from storage or during transportation.

Nuclear risks associated to a terrorist attack. (Velarde and Carpintero-Santamaría, 2010. Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

This table shows the probabilities of a terrorist attack and the biological harm produced. It also shows that the nuclear risk is the product of the probabilities of an attack multiplied by the biological harm. As it can be seen, it is obtained that the nuclear risk is analogous in all cases except in the case of INDs with plutonium whose nuclear risk is small.

Radioactive Dispersion Devices (RDD) or dirty bombs are made with chemical explosives provided with a radioactive source that could be obtained from hospitals, industries, etc. Radiological terrorism is a challenge that transcends national borders and one of the most disruptive asymmetric threats to security in the 21st century. One of the most important concerns relies on the potential use of dirty bomb by a terrorist group, either acting independently or acting as part of a bigger organization. The main purpose of a dirty bomb is to cause social chaos, panic, as well as traumatic and post-traumatic psychological-psychogenic effects in the population. The physiological and psychological damage caused by the explosion of an RDD would most likely be greater than the effects produced by the radioactive contamination.


Nuclear proliferation is still a cause of apprehension. Search for a technical superiority in nuclear weaponry is a reality.

The danger of sabotage and radioactive material facilities, unauthorized removal of nuclear or radioactive materials and subsequent malicious acts should be prevented by the improvement of capacities and development of novel tools to address the core challenges of proliferation and terrorism. It is also necessary to improve the social nuclear security culture.

The world is presently under stress due to COVID-19. We will overcome this pandemic, but the risks of other critical threats to global security should not be minimized. They are still there.

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