Risk of nuclear terrorism on the rise

While the risk of a nuclear attack in the next 20 years remains "very low" — probably lower than the possibility of a chemical or biological weapons strike — it is "likely to be greater than it is today," according to the projection, published by the National Intelligence Council.

The 99-page document — the fourth such report on long-term trends that the council has issued in recent years — warns of the perils the United States might expect from the steady expansion of nuclear capabilities worldwide.

"The spread of nuclear technologies and expertise is generating concerns about the potential emergence of new nuclear-weapon states and the acquisition of nuclear materials by terrorist groups," according to the document.

The national intelligence director’s office laid out the risks in a statement released yesterday.

"The world of the near future will be subject to an increased likelihood of conflict over scarce resources, including food and water, and will be haunted by the persistence of rogue states and terrorist groups with greater access to nuclear weapons," according to the DNI statement. "The likelihood that nuclear weapons will be used will increase with expanded access to technology and a widening range of options for limited strikes."

The global trends report "pulls its punch on exactly … why the spread of nuclear power is a problem, Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Centre told GSN. "The way they describe the problem, it’s not clear that you need to do very much to solve it other than to say something like, ‘Well, we have diplomatic pledges or IAEA inspections to guard against these possibilities,’ and then it just goes away."

"Since 2005, more than 15 countries have announced a desire to acquire large reactors of their own by 2020," wrote Sokolski, who serves on the U.S. Congressional Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism.

"Nine of these states — Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen — are located in the war-torn region of the Middle East," he wrote. "Most are interested in developing a nuclear program capable of more than merely boiling water to run turbines that generate electricity. At least four have made it clear that they are interested in hedging their security bets with a nuclear weapons option."

Sokolski expressed doubt that the International Atomic Energy Agency — the U.N. watchdog agency for nuclear power — would be able to ensure that these programs remain peaceful and not evolve into weapons efforts, GSN said.