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"Reducing the Greatest Risks of Nuclear Theft & Terrorism"

A nuclear security officer armed with an AR-15 assault rifle and 9mm hand gun patrols the coastal area of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, May 5, 2004, in Avila Beach, Calif.
AP Photo

"Reducing the Greatest Risks of Nuclear Theft & Terrorism"

Journal Article, Daedalus, volume 138, issue 4, pages 112-123

Fall 2009

Author: Matthew Bunn, Professor of Practice; Co-Principal Investigator, Project on Managing the Atom

Belfer Center Programs or Projects: International Security; Managing the Atom; Science, Technology, and Public Policy


Excerpt from "Reducing the Greatest Risks of Nuclear Theft & Terrorism":


In April 2009, President Obama warned that there was still a real danger that terrorists might get and use a nuclear bomb, calling the possibility "the most immediate and extreme threat to global security." He announced "a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years."

Keeping nuclear weapons and the difficult-to-manufacture materials needed to make them out of terrorist hands is critical to U.S. and world security — and to the future of nuclear energy as well. In the aftermath of a terrorist nuclear attack, there would be no chance of convincing governments, utilities, and publics to build nuclear reactors on the scale required for nuclear energy to make any significant contribution to coping with climate change.

But Obama's four-year goal will not be easy to achieve. At sites in dozens of countries around the world, the security measures in place for plutonium or highly enriched uranium (HEU) — the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons — are dangerously inadequate, amounting in some cases to no more than a night watchman and a chain-link fence. Changing that in four years will take sustained White House leadership, broad international cooperation, a comprehensive plan, and adequate resources.1 The fundamental key to success will be convincing policy-makers and nuclear managers around the world that nuclear terrorism is a real threat to their countries' security, worthy of new investments of their time and resources to reduce the risks — something many of them do not believe today.

Resources for this mission are not infinite, and choices will have to be made. Clearly there is little prospect of arranging for every building that has some plutonium or HEU to have a division of armed troops to guard it. It is critical to focus resources on reducing the most serious risks. But how can we judge where those most serious risks lie?

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1  For comprehensive recommendations for meeting this objective, see Matthew Bunn, Securing the Bomb 2008 (Cambridge, Mass.: Project on Managing the Atom, Harvard University, and Nuclear Threat Initiative, November 2008), and Matthew Bunn and Andrew Newman, "Preventing Nuclear Terrorism: An Agenda for the Next President" (Cambridge, Mass.: Project on Managing the Atom, Harvard University, and Nuclear Threat Initiative, November 2008);

This article was originally published by the quarterly journal Dædalus. Read the entire issue here.


For more information about this publication please contact the MTA Program Assistant at 617-495-4219.

Full text of this publication is available at:

For Academic Citation:

Bunn, Matthew. "Reducing the Greatest Risks of Nuclear Theft & Terrorism." Daedalus 138, no. 4 (Fall 2009): 112-123.

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