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Nuclear Safeguards Education Portal

Threats to Nuclear Security: Introduction

Photo Source: BBC/WGBH/NOVA
Photo Source: BBC/WGBH/NOVA 

To begin designing or evaluating a nuclear security system, the threat it must counter needs to be clearly articulated into a threat definition.  A threat definition consists  of information gathered from multiple sources and organized into a format that  clearly demonstrates a potential adversary's intentions, capabilities, and desired consequences.  The threat definition is compiled, along with information on other potential adversaries, into a threat spectrum, which weighs the intentions and capabilities of multiple adversaries.  The threat spectrum gives the designers of the security system an idea of what must be protected and how it must be protected.

For protection of nuclear or radiological materials, potential adversaries can be typically characterized into three main groups:

  • Criminals
  • Protesters
  • Terrorists

Of these, terrorists are by far the most extreme in their intent and the most dangerous in their capability.  Nuclear terrorism can pose a great potential consequence from an attack.  In addition to being immensely destructive and costly, nuclear terrorism may cause a paralyzing level of fear and trauma in a society.  The long speculated effects of nuclear terrorism are extremely severe and far-reaching.  Furthermore, groups seeking to engage in nuclear terrorism are becoming more prevalent and credible.

While nuclear terrorism is the greatest potential consequence of an attack, it is not the most likely consequence.  Adversaries are more commonly intent on the theft, sale, or nefarious use of radioactive material.  There is a surprisingly extensive history of adversaries engaging in all of these activities. Several databases documenting incidents of theft or malicious use of materials have been compiled due to increased concern over an increase in reported incidents following the breakup of the Soviet Union.


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