January 04, 2010

Suitcase nuke and dirty bomb realities

The term "suitcase nukes" refers to very small nuclear explosive devices. Small nuclear weapons, such as atomic demolition munitions (ADMs), were produced by the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Some of these types of weapons were designed for use by special forces for sabotage in the event of a war. These portable devices had very low explosive yields (around 1 kiloton), and may not have had the same security features as larger nuclear devices.

In the late 1990s, reports surfaced that suitcase nukes originating in Russia may have gone missing, prompting concerns that they may have been stolen or sold to terrorists. Those who claimed that these nuclear weapons were stolen suggested that the thefts occurred in the early 1990s. If this is accurate, then it is surprising that there have not been any attempts to use these weapons, or to credibly threaten their use. (Al-Qaeda claimed it has possession of such portable nuclear devices, but no evidence surfaced to substantiate the statement.) Nuclear weapons experts also point out that small nuclear weapons require routine maintenance because of the deterioration of nuclear materials and related components. If any nuclear devices were stolen in the early 1990s, it is unlikely that they would still be fully functional. There is also no firm evidence of any theft of Russian nuclear weapons. Russian and U.S. policymakers remain watchful, but do not believe any of these devices are in the hands of terrorists today.

Terrorists are far more likely to obtain the materials and knowledge to construct a radiological dispersal device (RDD or "dirty bomb") than they are to come across a functional suitcase nuke and obtain the proper codes for detonation of such a device. This also assumes that such portable devices are still in circulation today. Black market dealing in nuclear materials, however, is a credible threat that requires attention. There are multiple sources of poorly secured nuclear materials worldwide, and materials that are to this day unaccounted for, all of which could go into the construction of a dirty bomb. Thus, while the suitcase nuke threat has largely faded, the dirty bomb threat still persists today.

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