Nuclear Bomb Could Be Built For $5.4 Million With Common Parts
Terrorists could build a nuclear bomb in the United States using many commonly available components, at a cost of about $5.4 million, experts said.
Out of that total, something like $4 million would go for obtaining uranium.
If terrorists were to succeed in constructing such a weapon, they likely would strike New York in lower Manhattan, Washington or a suburb such as Tysons Corner, Va., or The City financial district in London, the experts said in a luncheon briefing for defense journalists organized by the Center for Media and Security at a Washington hotel.
One bomb might bring down all the tall buildings within a half mile of the blast, the experts estimate.
The assessments on the home-made nuclear weapons threat came from Peter Zimmerman, professor in the Department of War Studies at Kings College London, and Jeffrey G. Lewis, executive director of the Managing the Atom Project in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
While the Missile Defense Agency is spending billions to form a multi-layered ballistic missile defense (BMD) shield, the experts said it is far more likely that enemies would build nuclear weapons inside the United States using uranium smuggled into the country through a shipping port. Chances are slim that smuggled uranium would be detected by sensors monitoring cargo containers moving toward destinations in the United States. “Those scanners aren’t going to pick up uranium or plutonium,” according to Zimmerman.
The crude nuclear weapon they discussed wouldn’t be able to withstand the rigors of a missile launch and ballistic flight, they indicated. Rather, a rudimentary nuclear bomb built in the United States could be delivered “in a white van or a chartered airliner,” he said.
Some terrorist groups have ample funds. At one time, for example, Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the al Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, was estimated to be worth $300 million.
In a macabre mathematical calculation, Lewis said that for al Qaeda or other terrorists, nuclear bombs are a bargain: despite their high individual costs, they can mean a very low cost per death in a target population. A nuke can carry a cost of just $100 per person murdered, Lewis explained. Even a small bomb might leave 100,000 dead.
In contrast, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center cost al Qaeda some $180 per death. Other attacks, such as the bombing of the USS Cole (DDG 67) in 2000 at Aden, Yemen cost $590 per death. Some 17 sailors died, and many others were injured, when a small terrorist boat pulled alongside the destroyer and a bomb detonated.
According to Zimmerman, there is no question that terrorists could build a bomb in the United States using highly enriched uranium. The question is, would they do it, and how would they do it?
This wouldn’t be a major nuclear or thermonuclear device, but instead would be a relatively small atomic weapon, they said.
Building the bomb could be accomplished with facility on a 150 acre ranch equipped with a barn, a new steel building, some outbuildings, and a farmhouse where members of the terrorist cell could live and perform some electronics work.
Now, to be sure, building a nuclear bomb is no simple matter. That’s one reason it hasn’t yet happened, at least not that anyone has reported yet. It is challenging work. “We didn’t say it was easy,” Lewis said. “We said it was feasible.”
“Acquiring nuclear materials is the hardest part of the equation,” he added.
But it would be possible to take 4 percent enriched reactor fuel suitable for an electrical generating station, and use a centrifuge to push that to 90 percent enriched.
What are chances that a terrorist group might build a bomb and detonate it? “I sure wouldn’t put it lower than 10 percent,” Zimmerman said. Lewis noted there are terrorist groups with access to $10 million or more.
If a group obtains fissile material, it would make far more sense in terms of numbers of deaths inflicted to go to the expense of building an actual nuclear bomb, rather than merely settling for a dirty bomb (a couple of sticks of dynamite surrounded by fissile material that may cause radioactive contamination and panic in the populace, but no nuclear blast).