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Atoms for Terror? Nuclear Programs and Non-Catastrophic Nuclear and Radiological Terrorism

  • Bryan R. Early, Matthew Fuhrmann and Quan Li

Does the diffusion of nuclear programs encourage nuclear and radiological (NR) terrorism? It is argued that a country's vulnerability to NR terrorism grows as the size of its nuclear program increases. The presence of expansive nuclear infrastructure facilitates terrorists’ efforts to steal or acquire nuclear and radiological materials, increases the targets open to attack, and amplifies the potential economic and social-psychological consequences of related terrorist attacks. It is also argued that countries can reduce the likelihood of NR terrorism by improving nuclear security and reducing corruption. An empirical analysis of NR terrorist incidents during 1992–2006 supports for these arguments. The findings offer empirically grounded insights into the future risks of nuclear terrorism, and possible solutions are offered.

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Departments of Political Science and Public Administration & Policy, University at Albany, SUNY (email:; and Department of Political Science, Texas A&M University (email:, Portions of this research were completed while Early and Fuhrmann were research fellows at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Fuhrmann was a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. The authors thank Victor Asal, Tom Bielefeld, Charles Blair, Matthew Bunn, Erica Chenoweth, Kristian Gleditsch, Matthew Kroenig, Steven Miller, Karl Rethemeyer, the participants in the Nuclear Terrorism Working Group at the Belfer Center, and anonymous reviewers for useful comments and suggestions. We would also like to thank the Monterey Institute for International Studies for providing us with access to its Weapons of Mass Destruction terrorism dataset. Abhisekh Ghosh Moulick and Wendy Di Wang provided helpful research assistance. The replication dataset and web appendix are available at

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