The recent revelation of an international
black market in nuclear weapons technology emanating from Pakistan has raised
concern around the world. Nuclear weapons experts say the threat of a terrorist
group building and detonating a nuclear bomb is very real.
Concern over nuclear proliferation has risen following last month's confession
by Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan that he sold nuclear weapons plans
and materials abroad.
The scale of this nuclear black market worries many observers, including
experts at the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA,
which serves as a watchdog against the spread of nuclear weapons.
While Libya, Iran and North Korea have already been named in the scandal,
Melissa Fleming, head of public affairs for the IAEA, says the agency is concerned
that others, including terrorist groups, also may have purchased weapons technology.
She says Dr. Khan's apparent sale of bomb specifications is especially troubling. "One
of the most disturbing signs in Libya was blueprints for nuclear weapons," says
Ms. Fleming "And should a non-state actor, a terrorist group, get their hands
on that, and then somehow through a black market, also get ready-made nuclear
material - this could be very dangerous."
Even without ready-made plans, building a nuclear bomb is within the reach
of any group with enough time and money. Pakistani nuclear physicist Pervez
Hoodbhoy says the science behind bomb building is no longer the secret it once
was. "The physics of that is now fairly easy. It requires maybe a graduate
student. This could be his PhD project," he says. "And then to put together
the whole thing, it needs engineers, technologists - maybe a group of 15 or
20 would be fine for this. And it needs something like a year or two."
The main difficulty for terrorists seeking a nuclear weapon would involve
finding bomb-grade uranium or plutonium. Fortunately, neither of those materials
occurs naturally, and experts agree that manufacturing either would require
a major industrial base that even some nations would find impossible.
But Dr. Hoodbhoy notes that plutonium and enriched uranium can be obtained
either as a by-product of nuclear power plants or from scrapped nuclear missiles.
He says the nations of the former Soviet Union are among the likely sources
of bomb material. "I think that's a cause for genuine worry, because . those
stocks exist in Russia and in ex-Soviet Union countries where there are many
hundreds if not thousands of nuclear weapons that have been dumped," says Dr.
How well Russia and other nuclear states are faring at keeping such material
out of the wrong hands is hard to know for sure, as the IAEA's Ms. Fleming
explains. "The good news is that cases in trafficking in nuclear material have
been few and far between, and the last major case, was several years back," she
says. "So that could be a sign of either we're not detecting any kind of trafficking
or, more hopefully, that nuclear material is as it should be: very well secured."
In an effort to keep bomb material safe, the IAEA works with U.N. members
to track suspected cases of proliferation. Ms. Fleming says this cooperation
is very strong, but adds that there is still room for improvement. "While we
do get some very information from intelligence agencies, we consistently let
them know that we can be more effective the better and the quicker the information
The international effort to safeguard weapons materials is not the only factor
limiting the chance of a nuclear terror attack.
Environmental physicist Fred Singer says terror groups would find it very
difficult to build a weapon small enough to smuggle easily into a target nation. "If
you want to make a bomb that fits into a suitcase, you need to have a fairly
high efficiency," he says. "That's more difficult than assembling a bomb that
you could put into a truck."
As a result, he says, would-be bombers would have to build their weapon piece
by piece near the target site, perhaps increasing the likelihood of their being