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The Terrorist Nuclear Bomb Threat

By Carey Sublette

Last changed 18 May 2002


The frightening prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists has been in the public mind ever since the publication of The Curve of Binding Energy by John McPhee in 1973 (and its predecessor articles in the New Yorker the year before). Before that time it was widely perceived that the construction of an atomic bomb - developed by the Manhattan Project in World War II - required a Manhattan Project scale effort to create.

McPhee's book recounted the experiences and views of Ted Taylor, an early nuclear weapon designer, who disputed this idea. Taylor pointed out that although the production of the essential materials of atomic weapons - fissile highly enriched uranium and plutonium - does require huge investments of money and technology, once these investments have been made and the fissile materials are available in quantity then the barriers to manufacturing highly destructive bombs is dramatically lower. Beginning in the late 60s Taylor made it his crusade to raise awareness of this fact so that steps could and would be taken to prevent a future catastrophe.

Near the end of the The Curve of Binding Energy Taylor and McPhee visit the World Trade Center, and Taylor provides an extended reflection on what effect a crude nuclear bomb would have on the towers.

We looked up at the west wall of the nearer tower. From so close, so narrow an angle, there was nothing at the top to arrest the eye, and the building seemed to be some sort of probe touching the earth from the darkness of space. "What an artifact that is!" Taylor said, and he walked to the base and paced it off. We went inside, into a wide, uncolumned lobby. The building was standing on its glass-and-steel walls and on its elevator core. Neither of us had been there before. We got in an elevator. He pressed, at random, 40.
Walking to a window of the eastern wall, he looked across a space of about six hundred feet, past the Trade Center tower, to a neighboring building, at 1 Liberty plaza. "Through free air, a kiloton bomb will send a lethal dose of immediate radiation up to half a mile," he went on . "or, up to a thousand feet, you'd be killed by projectiles. Anyone in an office facing the Trade Center would die."
He pressed up against the glass and looked far down the plaza between the towers... "There's no question at all that if someone were to place a half-kiloton bomb on the front steps where we came in, the building would fall in the river."

The trauma of September 11, 2001 provides an intimate yardstick to judge the enormity of the catastrophe that would have resulted if the attack had instead been conducted with a nuclear bomb.

By New York City official count, as of 18 April 2002, 2825 people perished in the destruction of the World Trade Center. There were perhaps 30,000 people in the twin towers at the time of the first collision. At peak occupancy the two buildings have had held up to 60,000 people. Even a crude nuclear explosive, with an explosive force of a few hundred tons, would have left no survivors in either building, would have killed similar numbers elsewhere in the surrounding area, and injured hundreds of thousands more.

Though such a device is small by nuclear weapon standards, there is no urban megastructure in the world that can withstand the explosion. High rise urban centers throughout the world remain equally vulnerable to such attacks, just as the rest of Lower Manhattan remains today.

How serious is the threat of terrorist attacks with nuclear bombs?

This question leads to a set of interrelated topics. In the pages below I have collected a series of essays that treat different aspects of this question: the feasibility of terrorists building or acquiring nuclear devices; the claim that ex-Soviet suitcase nuclear bombs represent a real threat; the feasibility of suitcase nuclear bombs; and what is known about Osama bn Laden's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.