NEW YORK (Reuters) – Many experts put the chances of terrorists using a nuclear bomb much lower than public fears would indicate, a leading expert argues in a new book
“Will Terrorists Go Nuclear?” examines the history and psychology of, including whether or not terrorists could build a nuclear bomb, and if so, how bad it would be and how governments can prepare and avert disaster.
Prometheus Books.is a senior adviser at the RAND Corp think tank who has written about nuclear terrorism since the 1970s. His new book was released this week by
Jenkins asked 180 experts, including intelligence officials, senior military officers, government officials and nuclear scientists, to rate the probability that terrorists would successfully detonate a nuclear bomb in the next 10 years.
The responses ranged wildly, from zero to 100 percent certainty. The median response was 10 percent probability — well below public opinion polls he cites showing around one in four Americans expect a nuclear attack within five years.
The question involved a nuclear bomb, not a “dirty bomb,” in which radioactive material packed around conventional explosives is scattered when the device goes off.
“The experts clearly do not agree here,” Jenkins said.
Popular perceptions of a higher risk are fueled by movies and novels, sensationalist news coverage and partisan politics in Washington, where fear has been used to further political agendas, Jenkins said in an interview.
“It is conceivable that terrorists will create enormous alarm without the necessity of possessing nuclear weapons,” he said, noting there has never been a nuclear terrorist attack.
His own view is at the low end of the spectrum.
“I don’t think it’s inevitable, clearly (I) do not think it’s imminent. I accept it as a threat,” he said.
Jenkins said even if terrorists did build a nuclear bomb, it is likely to be a low-level device, perhaps one tenth of a kiloton — about 10 times the size of the largest truck bomb — rather than the “standard” assumption of 10 kilotons — about the size of the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima.
“You can create a set of perceptions that it will be the end of the world, and this is a really dangerous argument.”
Jenkins said the threat was far removed from the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union wielded thousands of nuclear weapons that could have ended civilization.
“Today we face Iran and a terrorist group with a good PR campaign. It’s not the same.”, an ambitious
Jenkins said the message to potential terrorists should be: “You’re not going to bring down the United States.”
He said he hopes the book will provoke nonpartisan debate.
If there were an attack, the outcome would depend on the U.S. reaction, asking: “Do we at that point toss the Constitution and bomb half the planet, or do we do something else?”
(Editing by Patricia Zengerle)