Ever since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the following nuclear arms race, the safety and security of nuclear weapons continues to intrigue us. The idea of anyone stealing dangerous weapons and unleashing them on targets has made its way into countless suspense novels, movies and television shows. The plot is familiar -- the bad guy steals the nuclear bomb, and it's the hero's job to catch the thief and defuse the bomb. More than one season of the popular television program "24" has focused on stolen nuclear material. We see it all the time in popular culture, but how easy is it in the real world for someone to steal a nuclear weapon?
When the Cold War between the United States and Russia ended in the early nineties, the threat of nuclear disaster appeared to fade. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, changed this -- when a group of terrorists hijacked four planes and destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City with two of them, fears increased over the possibility of stolen nuclear material being used in a future attack.
Intelligence shows that these fears aren't quite unfounded. Authorities in Russia, a country with a large arsenal of nuclear weapons and material used for building bombs, have reported hundreds of attempted smuggling incidents since September 2001. U.S. authorities and the CIA have acknowledged uncovering terrorists plots to obtain nuclear information.
How serious are these attempts to steal nuclear material? Could someone steal an entire nuke, or is it easier to steal different parts and assemble a bomb? What about missing weapons? Should we just be worried about bombs, or are there other kinds of weapons someone could use? In this article, we'll look at how safe the world's nuclear weapons arsenal is and see how close it is to the movies.
The U.S. Navy has its own name for the "seizure, theft or loss of a nuclear weapon or component" -- it's called a "Broken Arrow." (Anyone who's seen the 1996 John Woo movie "Broken Arrow," starring John Travolta, might already know this.) You might notice that the Navy's definition mentions both a nuclear weapon and a component of a nuclear weapon. Why is it important enough to draw a distinction between the parts of a bomb and the whole?
It's possible that someone could steal an entire nuclear bomb, but not very likely. As you can see in this article, intact nuclear weapons aren't something you just shove into your pocket or roll down the street. They're big and easily recognizable, so security at a nuclear arms stockpile would have to be extremely foolish and lax to let a bomb through.
The more likely scenario would involve a person or several persons stealing the different parts necessary for a bomb and putting them together to make a functional device. With the right information and materials, bombs of varying effectiveness can be built. A recent security breach in November 2006 at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, for instance, has officials worried that an employee passed on information concerning special access controls that would detonate a bomb. It's not a whole device, but it's an important piece of the puzzle [source: CBS News].
The most important element a terrorist would need would be the main ingredient to a nuclear bomb: highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium (or both). Like an intact nuclear bomb, however, these two substances aren't something you can just shoplift. Neither HEU nor plutonium exists naturally in nature, and they're very expensive and difficult to produce. However, both the United States and Russia have held onto enormous amounts of plutonium from dismantled atomic weapons, and both countries have "excess" amounts of HEU. These massive amounts of nuclear material are used or planned for use in nuclear power plants or research centers, making the risk of stolen information or material greater if proper security isn't enforced.
In order to get an amount of plutonium or uranium to a supercritical mass -- the point at which the material is compressed enough to create an uncontrolled nuclear reaction -- a certain amount of conventional explosives like TNT is needed. Acquiring TNT and its detonation device would probably be the easiest part of building a nuclear bomb. Building or manufacturing a metal case for the bomb's insides would be the last major basic step.
Although on some level it's possible for all of these steps and many more complicated ones to fall through, someone with the intent to acquire a bomb or parts of a bomb would need to be extremely powerful, knowledgeable and skilled to pull off such a stunt. It would also be impossible to do alone, as a team of technicians would be necessary for putting everything together. They may make it look easy in the movies, but in reality, it's much more difficult (and not something we recommend trying).
For more on security and the alternatives to a complete nuclear bomb, read the next page.
Nuclear Weapon Security
So how good is the security around nuclear weapons? The United States, as one example, typically uses "barriers, guards, surveillance cameras, motion sensors and background checks on personnel" in any situation where an arsenal of weapons exists [source: CFR]. Human error or corruption is always a possibility, of course, so none of these precautions is infallible.
Nuclear weapons themselves are guarded with many safety measures. One of the main precautions is a sophisticated electronic system called a permissive action link, in which two correct codes must be inserted in order to arm the bomb. This uses a "two man rule" principle, making it nearly impossible for a person to detonate a weapon by himself.
Other countries may not have top-notch security, increasing the risk of material being stolen. Russia is constantly cited as an example of dubious security efforts -- the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union complicated matters because officials didn't keep proper records. Authorities are notorious for treating guards and other employees at weapons facilities very poorly by failing to pay on time. Instead of going home happy with a nice paycheck, workers might be tempted to make a quick buck by selling top-secret information or smuggling dangerous materials. The United States also has limited information on the safety devices within Russian nuclear weapons themselves, so it remains unclear what kind of steps developers have taken to safeguard the detonation of a nuclear device.
Another concern is the black market in nuclear materials, in which low-grade plutonium or uranium is smuggled for money. The chances of making an effective nuclear bomb out of this so-called "nuclear junk" are extremely low, but the material can still be used in dirty bombs -- typical explosives that might spread dangerous radioactivity in the event of an explosion.
For lots more information on nuclear bombs and their history, see the next page.
Think you can pass our particle or tasty snack quiz? Test your knowledge to see if you know your sweets from your subatomics...
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- "Loose Nukes." The Council on Foreign Relations. Jan. 2006. http://www.cfr.org/publication/9549/
- "Nuclear lab breach could be 'devastating.'" CBS News. Nov. 3, 2006. http://www.intellnet.org/news/2006/11/03/25053-1.html
- "Nuclear terrorism." Union of Concerned Scientists. June 6, 2007. http://www.ucsusa.org/global_security/nuclear_terrorism/
- "Principles of nuclear weapons security and safety." The Nuclear Weapon Archive. Oct. 1, 1997. http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Weapons/Pal.html
- Roe, Sam. "Trafficking in stolen nuclear material on the rise." Chicago Tribune. Jan. 31, 2002. http://www.cdi.org/russia/191-4.cfm
- Tiwari, Jaya and Cleve J. Gray. "U.S. Nuclear Accidents." Center for Defense Information. http://www.cdi.org/Issues/NukeAccidents/accidents.htm