You can exhale, though: Most nuclear security experts are not particularly worried by this aspect of the Trump presidency.
Let’s consider some options, a nuclear strike on a civilian target could realistically happen in one of two ways: Either
- tensions between two nuclear states rise to the point where a single miscommunication or technical failure could trigger a launch; or,
- a terrorist organization could acquire nuclear weapons capabilities.
So how likely is either scenario?
State use of nuclear weapons is more likely than you think.
On the state side, there are a number of ongoing conflicts that could, in theory, go nuclear at any time. “Increasingly, some regional powers are relying on nuclear weapons for their day-to-day security against conventional conflict,” said Vipin Narang, author of “Nuclear Strategies in the Modern Era.” “If they think that a conventional invasion is coming — whether it is or not — they may be worried that the nuclear forces that they rely on for their survival might be threatened … there may be what’s sometimes called a ‘use it or lose it’ situation.”
The conflict that topped experts’ list of clashes to be concerned about is India-Pakistan. Both states have developed nuclear weapons outside the jurisdiction of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, both states have limited capabilities, which may incentivize early use, and both states — though their public doctrines are intentionally ambiguous — are known to have contingency plans involving nuclear first strikes against military targets.
Then there’s North Korea, whose recent missile tests have brought renewed attention to the state’s nuclear weapons program, which has spurred international trade sanctions. The Korean War never officially ended, so North Korea is still technically facing the threat of a U.S.-backed South Korea, and nuclear weapons remain central to North Korea’s national defense strategy. Some experts believe that the seemingly erratic behavior of the Kim regime is in fact strategic: If you’re handcuffed to your adversary on top of a cliff, dancing erratically near the edge is a smart way to extract concessions.
Beyond these two clear danger zones, several experts cited U.S.-Russia or Iran-Israel as distant third-place threats to go nuclear, with one suggesting that U.S.-China could heat up in coming years as the situation in the South China Sea develops.
In any of these active conflicts, we shouldn’t necessarily expect that fear of mutually assured destruction will save the day. We can’t say with any confidence how likely a nuclear conflict is because we don’t know what a total war between two nuclear states would look like — we’ve never had one.
Nuclear terrorism is plausible, but difficult to pull off.
Similarly, just because there’s never been a nuclear terrorist attack doesn’t mean that it will never happen. In theory, if a non-state actor got a hold of enough fissile material — the active ingredient in nuclear weapons — it would be relatively easy for them to assemble and detonate a bomb, according to Robert Rosner, former chief scientist and laboratory director at Argonne National Laboratory. “You’d need some physicists who know what they’re doing,” Rosner said. “But based on what’s available in the public literature, you could go ahead and make a uranium bomb.” Detection and prevention at this point would be very difficult, Rosner says — a weapon could be assembled in a garage and smuggled in a standard box truck.
A terrorist with nuclear ambitions, then, would have to acquire existing fissile material from one of the nine nuclear states, which could happen in one of two ways. First, there’s open theft, either of fissile material or of a fully assembled weapon. This would likely require a firefight, according to Rosner — nuclear facilities have armed guards — which would alert authorities to the presence of a threat. Second, which is the likelier possibility according to several of the experts I talked to, is through the assistance of an insider: A double agent with terrorist sympathies could infiltrate a state’s nuclear apparatus and simply deliver a weapon to a non-state actor.
On both counts, Pakistan again emerged as the consensus pick for the No. 1 cause for concern, largely due to its instability. “If the Pakistani state does collapse, it probably wouldn’t collapse in one big bang, but slowly become more and more dysfunctional,” said Ramamurti Rajaraman, professor emeritus of physics at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Finally, an act of nuclear terrorism would require the existence of a non-state actor that had both the organizational sophistication and the military ambition to entertain the prospect of nuclear violence. We got The ISIL Caliphate for that.
Humanity’s best recourse, if we (prudently) assume that accidents are inevitable, is to back away from the edge of the cliff until we can afford a stumb.
“Hopefully nobody is crazy enough to drop one,” said Rajaraman. “But nobody has the guts to get rid of them. I think it’s going to go on like this until something stupid happens.” Hopefully and crazy are variables in this equation.