Matthew Bunn Testifies Before Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs

April 7, 2008

Matthew Bunn, senior research associate with Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center, testified Tuesday, April 2 2008 before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on "The Risk of Nuclear Terrorism - and Next Steps to Reduce the Danger."

Bunn urged a global campaign to ensure that every nuclear weapon and every cache of potential nuclear bomb material worldwide be secured against the kinds of threats terrorists and criminals have demonstrated they can pose.

For full text of Bunn's testimony, see: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/18187/

___________________________________________

MR. CHAIRMAN AND MEMBERS OF THE COMMITTEE: It is an honor to be here today to talk about what I believe is among the most urgent threats to America’s security – the threat of nuclear terrorism. My message to you today is simple: the danger is real, but there are specific steps we can and must take that would greatly reduce the risk.


The Lessons of Pelindaba
On the night of November 8, 2007, two teams of armed men attacked the Pelindaba nuclear facility in South Africa, where hundreds of kilograms of weapon-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) are stored. While one of the teams was chased off by site security forces, the other team of four armed men disabled the detection systems at the site perimeter, entered without setting off any alarm, and went to the emergency control center and shot a worker there in the chest. He then raised an alarm for the first time. This team spent 45 minutes inside the secured perimeter without ever being engaged by site security forces, and then disappeared through the same hole they had cut in the fence. No one on either team was shot or captured. South African officials later arrested three individuals, but soon released them without charge. The South African government has not released important details of its investigation of the attack and refused earlier U.S. offers to remove the HEU at Pelindaba or to help improve security at the facility.

While we do not know that these attackers were after the HEU, this incident is nevertheless a potent reminder that inadequately secured nuclear material is a global problem, not one limited to the former Soviet Union. It is also a reminder that political heavy lifting will be needed to overcome the obstacles to sensitive nuclear security cooperation around the world. We urgently need a global campaign to ensure that every nuclear weapon and every cache of potential nuclear bomb material worldwide is secured against the kinds of threats terrorists and criminals have demonstrated they can pose – including two teams of armed attackers, possibly with cooperation from an insider.

Nuclear Terrorism Risks: The Bad News
Several basic questions can give us an understanding of the risk of nuclear terrorism.
Do terrorists want nuclear weapons? For a small set of terrorists, the answer is clearly “yes.” Osama bin Laden has called the acquisition of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction a “religious duty.” Al Qaeda operatives have made repeated attempts to buy nuclear material for a nuclear bomb, or to recruit nuclear expertise – including the two extremist Pakistani nuclear weapon scientists who met with bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to discuss nuclear weapons. Before al Qaeda, the Japanese terror cult Aum Shinrikyo also made a concerted effort to get nuclear weapons. With at least two groups going down this path in the last 15 years, we must expect that others will in the future.

Is it plausible that a sophisticated terrorist group could make a crude nuclear bomb if they got HEU or separated plutonium? The answer here is also “yes.” Making at least a crude nuclear bomb might well be within the capabilities of a sophisticated group, though a nuclear bomb effort would be the most technically challenging operation any terrorist group has ever accomplished. One study by the now-defunct congressional Office of Technology Assessment summarized the threat: “A small group of people, none of whom have ever had access to the classified literature, could possibly design and build a crude nuclear explosive device... Only modest machine-shop facilities that could be contracted for without arousing suspicion would be required.” Indeed, even before the revelations from Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence concluded that “fabrication of at least a ‘crude’ nuclear device was within al-Qa’ida’s capabilities, if it could obtain fissile material.” A terrorist cell of relatively modest size, with no large fixed facilities that would draw attention, might well be able to pull off such an effort – and the world might never know until it was too late.

Could a terrorist group plausibly get the material needed for a nuclear bomb? Unfortunately, the answer here is also “yes.” Nuclear weapons or their essential ingredients exist in hundreds of buildings in dozens of countries, with security measures that range from excellent to appalling – in some cases, no more than a night watchman and a chain-link fence. No specific and binding global standards for how these stockpiles should be secured exist.

See the full transcript of the testimony: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/18187/

Print print | Email email
Photograph of Matthew Bunn

Matthew Bunn, senior research associate, Managing the Atom Project at Harvard Kennedy School

"We urgently need a global campaign to ensure that every nuclear weapon and every cache of potential nuclear bomb material worldwide is secured against the kinds of threats terrorists and criminals have demonstrated they can pose," Bunn told committee members.