Feature

Why nuclear terrorism is so unlikely

Since 9/11, Americans have lived in dread of a terrorist nuclear attack, said Steve Chapman. The vision of a mushroom cloud rising over an American city has filled people with a

Steve ChapmanChicago Tribune

Since 9/11, Americans have lived in dread of a terrorist nuclear attack, said Steve Chapman. The vision of a mushroom cloud rising over an American city has filled people with a “sense of profound vulnerability,” helped build support for the Iraq war, and has been used to justify a sharp expansion in government power—from wiretapping to waterboarding. But the chances of al Qaida or another terrorist group carrying out a nuclear attack here, nuclear experts say, are “vanishingly small.” Terrorists would first have to steal about 100 pounds of bomb fuel from a government, and then transport the material hundreds of miles across borders without detection. Even if that were possible, building a bomb isn’t something you can do in a garage or a cave; you need specialized, high-tech equipment, and people with training and skills. Any weapon would then have to be smuggled into the U.S. without detection—and without anyone in the expanding circle of conspirators screwing up. As a point of perspective, let’s remember that in the past seven years, terrorists haven’t even been able to stage a simple truck bombing or other attack in the U.S. Building, transporting, and detonating a nuke would be infinitely more difficult, and infinitely less likely—our nightmares notwithstanding.

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