"Terrorists Could Snap Up Russia's Loose Nukes."
That's a myth. It has been soberly, and repeatedly, restated by Harvard University's Graham Allison and others that Osama bin Laden gave a group of Chechens $30 million in cash and two tons of opium in exchange for 20 nuclear warheads. Then there is the "report" about how al Qaeda acquired a Russian-made suitcase nuclear bomb from Central Asian sources that had a serial number of 9999 and could be exploded by mobile phone.
If these attention-grabbing rumors were true, one might think the terrorist group (or its supposed Chechen suppliers) would have tried to set off one of those things by now or that al Qaeda would have left some trace of the weapons behind in Afghanistan after it made its very rushed exit in 2001. Instead, nada. It turns out that getting one's hands on a working nuclear bomb is actually very difficult.
In 1998, a peak year for loose nuke stories, the head of the U.S. Strategic Command made several visits to Russian military bases and pointedly reported, "I want to put to bed this concern that there are loose nukes in Russia. My observations are that the Russians are indeed very serious about security." Physicists Richard Garwin and Georges Charpak have reported, however, that this forceful firsthand testimony failed to persuade the intelligence community "perhaps because it [had] access to varied sources of information." A decade later, with no credible reports of purloined Russian weapons, it rather looks like it was the general, not the spooks, who had it right.
By all reports (including Allison's), Russian nukes have become even more secure in recent years. It is scarcely rocket science to conclude that any nuke stolen in Russia is far more likely to go off in Red Square than in Times Square. The Russians seem to have had no difficulty grasping this fundamental reality.
Setting off a stolen nuke might be nearly impossible anyway, outside of TV's 24 and disaster movies. Finished bombs are routinely outfitted with devices that will trigger a nonnuclear explosion to destroy the bomb if it is tampered with. And, as Stephen Younger, former head of nuclear weapons research and development at Los Alamos National Laboratory, stresses, only a few people in the world know how to cause an unauthorized detonation of a nuclear weapon. Even weapons designers and maintenance personnel do not know the multiple steps necessary. In addition, some countries, including Pakistan, store their weapons disassembled, with the pieces in separate secure vaults.