The potential for nuclear terrorism was a cause of concern, even before last year's September 11 terrorist attacks. Now the issue is under greater scrutiny.
Independent consultants for the U.S. Energy Department have concluded that the probability of a nuclear terrorist attack in either India or Pakistan is low. The experts, who conducted the research for the department's Sandia National Lab, in New Mexico, say safety and security are a priority at nuclear facilities in both nations.
Additionally, the fact that nuclear weapons in the two countries are stored unassembled is seen as discouraging potential nuclear terrorists.
Hasan-Askari Rizvi, an independent scholar and former professor of Pakistan Studies at Columbia University in New York, recently completed a four month study with his Indian counterpart, Rajesh Basrur, an analyst of nuclear security and Indian strategic culture, formerly of Bombay University.
Mr. Rizvi says it is unlikely that a terrorist group in Pakistan can gain access to material to build a nuclear bomb, especially against the backdrop of heightened security following the September 11 attacks. Nevertheless, he says the possibility exists that a disgruntled employee or an extremist working inside a nuclear facility could steal radioactive material or carry out an armed attack.
"An extreme Islamic element can attack a nuclear facility, that is not ruled out. Or if they take over a nuclear facility or a storage area, and then they can blackmail the government by taking over that and make a dirty bomb and more likely can take radioactive material, not necessarily fissile, but radioactive material, outside of Pakistan and even outside of India [and use it elsewhere]," Mr. Rizvi said.
The researchers offer suggestions on how to prevent a nuclear terrorist attack, which include keeping track of individual extremists and upgrading safety and security technology.
But Professor Rizvi says that while Pakistan has taken steps to increase security at nuclear facilities, there is no evidence that Pakistan has acted on an offer of direct American involvement in efforts to protect against the risk of nuclear terrorism.
"This was an offer that Colin Powell had made when he visited Pakistan. Pakistan accepted that, but there is no follow-up. The Americans were saying do not worry, we will take care of it. The Pakistanis said no, it is not going to happen. We would need technology, we need guidance, we need training, but we will not give access to American technocrats or scientists to Pakistan's nuclear weapon program," he said.
The researchers also concluded that while the threat from nuclear terrorists is even less likely in India, it can not be ignored there either, since India has a long been a target of terrorism and has a larger number of nuclear reactors than Pakistan.
The study, presented at Columbia University, is expected to be published in about six weeks.