The World Must Not Become Complacent to the Threat

The absence of an actual detonation of a nuclear or dirty bomb should not lull the world into complacency. To the contrary, the world should assume its luck will not last forever.

There is ample evidence that terrorists remain interested in stealing nuclear or radioactive materials to use in a bomb:

  • On July 22, 2011, Norway suffered the deadliest incident on Norwegian soil since World War II when Anders Breivik, a far-right terrorist who has identified himself as a Nazi, murdered 77 people in a shocking terrorist attack. His 1,500-page manifesto, discovered following the attacks, contained a chilling warning of more serious acts of terrorism including ones using nuclear and radiological materials. He noted the wide availability of radiological materials, describing them as “unsecured . . . in the strangest of places,” “relatively easy to acquire” either on the black market or “by going directly to the sources ourselves.” Breivik’s manifesto continues to inspire violent extremists, suggesting it remains in current circulation.
  • In late 2015, Belgian investigators discovered chilling surveillance video in the possession of a suspected terrorist alleged to have been involved in the November 2015 attacks in Paris. The Islamic State took credit for those attacks, and the video footage suggested the Islamic State had been watching a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official who had access to secure areas of a Belgian nuclear research facility. The video’s existence raised concerns that the group was seeking to acquire materials for a simple nuclear device or a dirty bomb. It is unclear whether there was a plan to abduct the official and ransom him for nuclear or radioactive materials or to bribe or coerce the official to turn him into an unwilling insider. Other evidence gathered in the investigation pointed to additional terrorist plans to “do something involving one of [Belgium’s] four nuclear sites.”

There are also hundreds of incidents of stolen or lost nuclear and other radioactive materials that have been tracked in various databases.

  • The International Atomic Energy Agency’s Incident and Trafficking Database has recorded tens of incidents a year where radioactive sources have been recovered. As of December 31, 2018, the database contained 3,497 confirmed incidents reported by member states since 1993. Of these incidents, 285 involved a confirmed or likely act of trafficking or malicious use.
  • Funded by NTI, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies has been tracking incidents of theft or loss of nuclear and other radioactive materials in its own Global Incidents and Trafficking Database since 2013. Informed by publicly available information, the database contains hundreds of incidents of loss, theft, and unauthorized possession of those materials in 2017 and 2018 alone. Three of the 2017 incidents involved nuclear materials, including the sale of plutonium-239 and plutonium-241.

The international community has seen significant progress on nuclear security over the past two decades, but as the NTI Index shows, significant gaps and challenges remain. Absent continued prioritization of nuclear security at national and international levels, the international community risks backsliding.

Photo credit: IAEA / flickr