Nuclear 9/11

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Nuclear weapons materials on the black market is a global concern,[1][2] and a nuclear 9/11 scenario could involve the detonation of a small, crude nuclear weapon by a terrorist group, in a major U.S. city, with significant loss of life and property.[3][4] The Obama administration will focus on reducing the risk of such nuclear threats and aims to strengthen homeland nuclear security.[5]


On September 11, 2001, nineteen al Qaeda hijackers killed some 3,000 people and caused billions of dollars damage to New York City and the Pentagon. This toll would be small compared with a nuclear 9/11 — a hypothetical nuclear attack launched by a terrorist group. Detonation of a nuclear weapon in a major U.S. city could kill more than 500,000 people and cause more than a trillion dollars in damage.[3][4] Hundreds of thousands could die from fallout, the resulting fires and collapsing buildings. In this scenario, uncontrolled fires would burn for days and emergency services and hospitals would be completely overwhelmed.[6][7][8]

Risk assessment

President Obama has reviewed Homeland Security policy and concluded that "attacks using improvised nuclear devices ... pose a serious and increasing national security risk".[5] In their presidential contest, President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry both agreed that the most serious danger facing the United States is the possibility that terrorists could obtain a nuclear bomb.[6] Most nuclear-weapon analysts agree that "building such a device would pose few technological challenges to reasonably competent terrorists". The main barrier is acquiring highly enriched uranium.[9]

Large quantities of highly enriched uranium are inadequately secured in several countries, including Russia and Pakistan.[10][11] Since 1993, there have been more than 1,300 reported incidents of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials, including plutonium and highly enriched uranium, both of which can be used as the basis for an atomic bomb.[1] With al Qaeda and several other terrorist organizations having the stated intent of acquiring a nuclear device, this "potentially catastrophic constellation of factors has led to realistic fears of a nuclear 9/11".[6][10] When enough stolen material had been collected, only a few specialists would be needed to construct a nuclear weapon, which could then be delivered by truck to the detonation point.[1]

Despite a number of claims,[12][13] there is no credible evidence that any terrorist group has yet succeeded in obtaining a nuclear bomb or the materials needed to make one.[14][6] In 2004, Graham Allison, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Clinton administration, wrote that “on the current path, a nuclear terrorist attack on America in the decade ahead is more likely than not".[15] Also in 2004, Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information stated: "I wouldn't be at all surprised if nuclear weapons are used over the next 15 or 20 years, first and foremost by a terrorist group that gets its hands on a Russian nuclear weapon or a Pakistani nuclear weapon".[4] In 2006, Robert Gallucci, Dean of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, estimated that “it is more likely than not that al Qaeda or one of its affiliates will detonate a nuclear weapon in a U.S. city within the next five to ten years".[15]


If the world’s stockpiles of nuclear materials and of nuclear weapons themselves could be effectively secured, a nuclear 9/11 could be prevented, and "hostile states could be blocked from taking advantage of this potential shortcut to the bomb".[6] Bunn has argued that there needs to be a major initiative to strengthen security for nuclear materials and facilities, and to set up stringent security standards.[16]

The Obama administration will focus on reducing the risk of high-consequence, non-traditional nuclear threats. Nuclear security is to be strengthened by enhancing "nuclear detection architecture and ensuring that our own nuclear materials are secure", and by "establishing well-planned, well-rehearsed, plans for co-ordinated response".[5] According to senior Pentagon officials, the United States will make "thwarting nuclear-armed terrorists a central aim of American strategic nuclear planning".[17]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Jay Davis. After A Nuclear 9/11 The Washington Post, March 25, 2008.
  2. Brian Michael Jenkins. A Nuclear 9/11?, September 11, 2008.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Orde Kittrie. Averting Catastrophe: Why the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty is Losing its Deterence Capacity and How to Restore It May 22, 2007, p. 338.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Nicholas D. Kristof. A Nuclear 9/11 The New York Times, March 10, 2004.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 The White House. Homeland Security
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Matthew Bunn. Preventing a Nuclear 9/11 Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2005, p. v.
  7. Controlling Nuclear Warheads and Materials p. 16.
  8. Bleek, Philipp, Anders Corr, and Micah Zenko. Nuclear 9/11: What if Port is Ground Zero? The Houston Chronicle, May 1, 2005.
  9. Charles D. Ferguson. Preventing a nuclear 9/11 : First, secure the highly enriched uranium The New York Times, September 24, 2004.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Brian Finaly and Andrew Grotto. The Race to Secure Russia's Loose Nukes September 2005.
  11. Peter Goodspeed. Terrorists have real chance of stealing nukes The National Post, July 18, 2009.
  12. Paul Williams (2005). The Al Qaeda Connection : International Terrorism, Organized Crime, and the Coming Apocalypse, Prometheus Books, pp. 192–194.
  13. Nuclear 9/11: Interview with Dr. Paul L. Williams Global Politician, September 11, 2007.
  14. Ajay Singh. Nuclear terrorism — Is it real or the stuff of 9/11 nightmares? UCLA Today, February 11, 2009.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Orde Kittrie. Averting Catastrophe: Why the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty is Losing its Deterence Capacity and How to Restore It May 22, 2007, p. 342.
  16. Matthew Bunn.Strengthening Nuclear Security Against Post-September 11 Threats of Theft and Sabotage Journal of Nuclear Materials Management, Spring 2002.
  17. Thom Shanker and Eric Scmitt. U.S. to Make Stopping Nuclear Terror Key Aim The New York Times, December 18, 2009.

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