TFF logoFORUMS Meeting Point

TFF Home | About us


Iraq Forum

Features by others

Links to all issues

New stuff

Other associate articles

Burundi Forum

Publications on-line

Paul McCartney

Nyt på nordisk

Jonathan Power

EU conflict-handling

The 100 best books

Annual Reports

TFF Associates


Reconciliation project

Øbergs Kalejdoskop

Support TFF on-line

Activities right now

Gandhi & India

Teaching & training

Oberg's photos

Support TFF off-line

PressInfos - Analyses

Macedonia Forum

Lærestof på dansk

TFF News Navigator


A terrorist attack with nuclear
weapons could be worse
than Hiroshima



Gunnar Westberg, TFF Adviser &
Co-President IPPNW


Sweden - September 21, 2005

Sixty years ago on Aug. 6th the city of Hiroshima was destroyed by one single atomic bomb, a weapon produced by the most advanced and expensive scientific project of its time. Today there are terrorist groups who in the near future might have the capacity and the wish to explode a nuclear bomb with the same terrifying effect as the Hiroshima bomb.

An expert group has for NATO described and in summary form published a study on the possibility and consequences of a terrorist nuclear explosion in a big city. The study was produced by members of Centre for Strategic and International studies in Washington and Nuclear Threat Initiative, led by the former senator Sam Nunn. As example they choose a detonation in the headquarters of NATO in Brussels, Belgium. The study, named Black Dawn, was recently presented for the NATO parliamentarians. I participated in the presentation as a medical expert.

The scenario: A light covered pickup truck stops by the main entrance to the NATO HQ. A nuclear bomb with an explosive power of 10 kilotons, slightly less than the Hiroshima bomb, detonates. Most buildings within a radius of 1860 meters will burn and be destroyed. Humans in this area who are not shielded, e.g. by concrete walls, will receive from the explosion a burn injury and a radiation dose with lethal effect within days or weeks. Many succumb because of fires or are buried under collapsing buildings.

We calculated that 40,000 persons die within 24 hours and about 300,000 are severely injured. Many of the injured will also die, in particular because the medical resources in central Brussels will be largely destroyed. The possibilities for transport will be very small. Rescue teams will because of the radiation not be allowed to get closer than two kilometres from the detonation during the first days. The number of severely burned persons is estimated to be around 30,000. There are around five hundred beds for burned patients in northern Europe.

The radioactive fallout downwind will cover a large area. Tens of thousands of humans, maybe 60,000, will be subjected to lethal radiation doses from the fallout. Farming will cease for years in a large area of Belgium, Holland and North-western Germany. The enormous economic consequences were not calculated in the study.

In Hiroshima and Nagasaki the radioactive fallout was small because the bombs exploded at a high altitude, while a detonation on the ground will cause a high radioactivity over a large area.

Can terrorist groups build nuclear weapons? Yes, the knowledge has become more widely available, for instance form the Pakistani nuclear physicist Abdul Khan. His blueprints and equipment have been sold to several countries, e.g. Iran and Libya and has also reached Al Qaeda. Terrorist nukes would probably be "primitive", with a low explosive yield and a higher weight than in sophisticated weapons, not suitable for missiles but for a truck or a container.

Would you be reading this now,
if it wasn't useful to you?
Get more quality articles in the future

The crucial step for the terrorist group is to get hold of uranium of weapons grade, highly enriched uranium. To build a plutonium bomb is much more difficult. North Korea has, for instance, tried for more than a decade. A terrorist group is unlikely to succeed with this. To produce weapons grade uranium in larger quantities can only be done with investments of billions of dollars and access to very advanced technology. However, there are large stores of highly enriched uranium in Russia. The reports of substantial thefts from these stores have not been confirmed. Highly enriched uranium is also to some extent stored at older research reactors in many European countries. The amount at each reactor may be relatively small, of little interest for a country with a nuclear weapons program, but sufficient for a single terrorist bomb. In the NATO scenario the fissile material was assumed to have been stolen from a reactor in Byelorussia.

In Europe and even more in the USA, at borders or in harbours, facilities have been installed at very high cost to check for the transport of radioactive materials. The expert agreed that these measures have little chance of success.

The expert group agreed that there exists a real risk for a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons within a decade, in Europe or the USA. Counter-terrorist measures can not be expected to greatly decrease the risk.

There are however good possibilities to make nuclear terrorism much less likely. The important step is to secure all highly enriched uranium, Europe has great possibilities and responsibilities here, both supporting the program to secure uranium stores in Russia and by moving the uranium from the research reactors to central, well protected facilities. It is still possible to get all highly enriched uranium in the world under control.

In a longer perspective the ongoing nuclear weapons proliferation will be very helpful to nuclear terrorists. The treaty against nuclear weapons proliferation, NPT, was severely weakened at the last review conference in New York May 2005. Several nuclear powers now threaten to actually use nuclear weapons, ignoring their pledge under the NPT regime. This will of course greatly stimulate the efforts by countries that feel threatened by nuclear weapon states to obtain their own nuclear weapons. When more countries have nuclear bombs and nuclear weapons technology it will be increasingly difficult to stop terrorists from getting or building them.

To stop nuclear terrorism, or to stop the much greater danger, nuclear war, there is only one road: To abolish all nuclear weapons. A large majority of humans in the world are demanding this, now at the sixty year anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Never again Hiroshima, through war or terrorism


Gunnar Westberg

Co-President, IPPNW


Get free articles & updates

© TFF & the author 2005  



Tell a friend about this article

Send to:


Message and your name




S P E C I A L S & F O R U M S

Iraq Forum

Gandhi & India

Burundi Forum

Photo galleries

Nonviolence Forum

TFF News Navigator

Become a TFF Friend

TFF Online Bookstore

Reconciliation project

EU conflict-management

Make an online donation

Foundation update and more

TFF Peace Training Network

Make a donation via bank or postal giro

Basic menu below












The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512

© TFF 1997 till today