Colonel GG Pamidi*


In his famous speech at Prague in 2009, President Barack Obama had pledged that his administration would launch a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. In step with that stated goal, the first Nuclear Security Summit was held in Washington, DC, during April 2010 and the second Nuclear Security Summit has just concluded in Seoul during March 2012. The aims of these summits are in total sync with the Indian goal of minimising, if not, totally eliminating the ‘means’ available to the terrorists to resort to nuclear terrorism. The key point is to remain focused on securing the vulnerable nuclear material and thus achieving ‘security’. It needs to be clearly emphasised that this is quite different from the other 2Ss of nuclear programmes, namely, ‘safety’ and ‘safeguards’. These two are also critical but belong in the realm of the civilian nuclear power sector and have less to do with the aspect of nuclear terrorism. However, the Fukushima accident of March 2011 has vividly brought out that there is an intimate link between nuclear security and nuclear safety since both involve tremendous loss of lives, in case of any failure. This has been duly noted and acknowledged by the international community and this aspect was evidently discussed in the summit too[1].  India is alive to this reality and the necessary actions appear to be underway to ensure that safety is not compromised. No less a person than the Prime Minister himself had stated in Seoul that, “Nuclear safety evaluations are being put in the public domain to enhance transparency and boost public confidence.”[2]

Assessing the Nuclear Terrorism Threat

Over the past several years, the prospect of a terrorist group armed with a nuclear weapon has frequently been cited as a genuine and overriding threat to the security of the world. There is widespread agreement regarding the severity of this threat and, consequently, Nuclear Security Summits are being convened to address this aspect. However, this issue needs to be understood in its entirety so as to dispel any false notions. Is it possible that a terrorist group can lay their hands on a fully mated nuclear device? What about the Permissible Action Links that are an integral part of the device? Even in the remote possibility of such an eventuality, how will the terrorist group deliver it to the intended target? Can non-state actors achieve the level of sophistication needed to do this? The answer to all these is that while the intention may well be there the capability currently does not exist. All assembled devices and warheads are with the respective states and unless there is a failure of a nuclear armed state, the possibility of a fully assembled nuclear weapon making its way into a non-state actor is extremely low.

What then is the realistic threat? If they cannot get ready made nuclear devices, can they develop it? While the development of atomic devices involving the technology of breaking or fusing atoms is beyond the reach of terrorists, what is possible is a radiological weapon which seeks to disperse radioactive material by means of conventional explosions; this is very much in the realm of possibility. Such weapons are called “Dirty Bombs”. The immediate danger from a dirty bomb is from the explosion, which can cause serious injuries and property damage. The radioactive materials used in a dirty bomb would probably not create enough radiation exposure to cause immediate serious illness, except to those people who are very close to the blast site.  However, the carriage of radioactive dust beyond the blast site due to wind, water, humans and vehicles is likely to cause serious widespread contamination resulting in mass deaths and illness. Cesium, Polonium and other alpha and gamma emitting, highly toxic radioactive elements are the choice weapon ingredients.

An analysis of the supply and demand sides of the nuclear terrorist threat suggests that limiting and preferably stopping any further proliferation of nuclear weapons and the technology to produce nuclear material is and will remain an important goal. This is because there seems to be no let up in the ‘demand’ side from various violent terrorist groups of various hues and shades.

The 3 Ss’: Security, Safety and Safeguards

The point that needs to be underlined while discussing nuclear issues is that while ‘safety’ and ‘security’ are both equally important, the former can indeed be ensured with adequate ‘safeguards’ while nuclear security refers to measures to protect against a ‘malicious’ act. Nuclear safety has to do with the foolproof functioning of the nuclear power plant, adequate safeguards against any malfunctions and protection against natural disasters. Nuclear security measures, on the other hand, refer to a wide range of actions to prevent theft or diversion of nuclear material or sabotage at an installation or in transit. They could include physical protection measures, material control and accounting, personnel reliability screening and training. A broader understanding of nuclear security also includes measures to prevent and detect illicit trafficking—cargo inspections, border security, and interdiction measures[3]. India is no stranger to terrorist activities. Various parts of the country have witnessed ghastly acts and even now, the threat of yet another terrorist act is ever present and real. The spectre of nuclear terrorism, while unlikely cannot be ruled out. In this context, securing nuclear materials is seen by many as crucial to preventing an act of nuclear terrorism[4]. While nuclear security is primarily a national responsibility, there is no gainsaying the fact that there are benefits to be gained by supplementing responsible national actions through sustained and effective international cooperation.

Eliminating Nuclear Terrorism

Terrorism is a crime against humanity, and as such, can be thwarted by eliminating either the:

  • Means.
  • Motive.
  • Opportunity

While the traditional approach in combating terrorism has involved measures to tackle all the three, in the case of nuclear terrorism, if one can effectively eliminate the means alone, one will be able to succeed in thwarting such attempts. This fact has been fully understood by the political leadership of the bulk of the countries and is reflected in the commitment shown by them in the last two summits. This is not to say that the world has suddenly become safer or that there are no shortcomings or drawbacks of these summits. It is accepted by all that much needs to be done and that the road is long and torturous. From the Indian perspective, these summits have been a success and have addressed the core security concerns:-

  • They have vindicated India’s stand that the intersection of international terrorism and clandestine proliferation cannot afford to be neglected any longer.
  • As is well known this has been the Indian position; clandestine proliferation must not be ignored and this affects India’s security directly. 
  • As the Prime Minister had said at the Washington Summit, “The concerns that we have been expressing for decades on the dangers of proliferation and risk of nuclear materials finding their way into the wrong hands are today finding widespread acceptance[5]
  • The summits have steered well away from the pitfalls of the earlier nuclear agreements. To elucidate, these summits are not discriminatory nor do they call for punitive measures.
  • It has effectively increased the global abhorrence of nuclear terrorism and made it further of a taboo.
  • The Seoul communiqué specifically refers to global nuclear security architecture; which India has also been emphasising.
  • All the participants have to be equal partners.
  • The agreement to expand the scope of international cooperation with focus on minimisation of Highly Enriched Uranium, information and transport security, nuclear forensics, preventing illicit nuclear trafficking, assistance for updating national regulations and improving nuclear security are all welcome.


In sum, the biggest value of Nuclear Security Summits is the incentive for leaders to plan ahead and deliver in advance[6]. The Third Summit is scheduled in 2014 in the Netherlands. Some skeptics fear that this could turn out to be the last, if no substantial progress is made in the intra summit period. However, the fact that the focus was firmly on countering or preventing nuclear terrorism despite Iran and North Korea dominating discussion on nonproliferation issues speaks about the level of commitment of the political leadership. Nuclear terrorism remains a danger and since nuclear materials that could be used in terrorist weapons remain in dozens of countries around the world, it's important for the international community to continue to improve security so as to lower the odds of a nuclear terrorist attack. One of the values of a series of summits like these is that it stops the world from forgetting about nuclear security just because the world is more focused on transitory and immediate issues such as preventing a nuclear Iran or a belligerent North Korea. The danger is that the world gets infatuated with the nuclear challenge of the day and forgets other problem areas. It is today accepted that the real nuclear danger is less from a state and far more from a terrorist group. In the final analysis, if there is no unaccounted nuclear material, then there can't be nuclear terrorism. It is in everybody’s interest to work towards that end.


[1]  See the communiqué  issued after the summit  wherein a specific mention has been made regarding this aspect.

[2]  Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Prime Minister's Office, 27 March 2012.

[3] Mary Beth Nikitin, “Securing Nuclear Materials: The 2012 Summit and Issues for Congress”, Congressional Research Service Report R41169, 07 March, 2012.

[4] Jonathan Medalia, “Nuclear Terrorism: A Brief Review of Threats and Responses”, CRS Report RL32595.

[5]  Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Prime Minister's Office, 13 April 2010.

[6] Interview of Michael A. Levi by Bernard Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign Relations, “The Seoul Nuclear Security Summit”, 25 March, 2012


*Colonel GG Pamidi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation, USI.

(Article uploaded on April 19, 2012). 

Disclaimer : The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI.




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