Nuclear terrorism is the detonation by terrorists of a yield-producing nuclear bomb containing fissile material. Although the chances of all-out nuclear war have decreased enormously compared to 1962, the chances of a nuclear terrorist attack against a single city have increased. President Obama has described nuclear terrorism as the “most immediate and extreme threat to global security.”

Imagine the consequences of a 10-kiloton weapon exploding in San Francisco, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Charlotte, or any other city in the U.S. or worldwide. From the epicenter of the blast to a distance of approximately one third of a mile, every structure would be destroyed and no one would be left alive. A second circle of destruction extending three-quarters of a mile from ground zero would leave buildings looking like the Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City. A third circle reaching out one mile would be ravaged by fires and radiation.

DC blastmap

A blast-map showing the destruction that would occur if a 10-kiloton nuclear weapon detonated at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.

Click here to visualize the consequences of a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb in the location of your choice.

The disastrous effects of a nuclear terrorist attack would exceed the obvious human costs. A study by the RAND Corporation estimated that direct economic costs of a nuclear terrorist attack on a U.S. port would exceed $1 trillion, about ten times the cost of 9/11. There would be immediate pressure to close all U.S. ports to prevent another attack. Given that U.S. ports carry out 7.5% of all global trade activity, the consequences for the world economy would be catastrophic. The political consequences of nuclear terrorism would be immense, and could lead to a drastic curtailment of the civil liberties that we currently take for granted.

For the past twenty years, the Belfer Center has been at the forefront of research into the nuclear terrorism threat.  Click here for Belfer Center’s Nuclear Terrorism Factsheet and here for Nuclear Terrorism 101. You can also find a collection of other material produced by the Center on how to tackle the nuclear terrorism threat here.

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