Suitcase Nuclear Fission Device 

Subject: American History
Type: Expository Essay
Pages: 4
Word count: 1201
Topics: Cold War, Nuclear Weapon, Soviet Union, Terrorism


The suitcase nuclear device that can also be referred to as a backpack nuke that has been used in hypothetical context to refer to a nuclear weapon with so much tact in its portability that its mode of delivery is primarily a suitcase (Jenkins, 2006). The 1950s and 1960s saw the development of these especially portable nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union. In the 1950s, the term was being used as a figure of speech to the prospect of reducing the size of nuclear weapons and not necessarily as a form of delivery. The technical plausibility of these devices has not been a matter of question in recent years. However, the existent of such weapons has not yet been made public over the years by either the United States or the Soviet Union. The 1970s saw a shift in concern from the possibility of the existence of such weapons for the military to the possible use of these weapons for terrorism.

While measuring the value of a nuclear weapon, the entire premise is based on its ability to be smuggled and transported with ease. It is also estimated by its proximity from the target and how easy it is to get it there (Miklaucic, Brewer, & Starvridis, 2013). While designing nuclear weapons, there exists a tradeoff between the weight and the compact size of these weapons. The small nuclear weapons that are about 13 centimeters in diameter and 63 centimeters in length might have fit in a typical suitcase, but the lightest of them weighed about 45 kilograms and yielded 0.19 kiloton.

The Plausibility of Terrorist Having a Suitcase Nuclear Fission Device

After determining that indeed suitcase nuclear fission devices can be made, we move on to deciding whether it is possible that these weapons can be used by terrorists. Unfortunately, there is a high possibility that terrorists may use nuclear bombs. Nuclear terrorism is a massive threat to national security despite the efforts made to alleviate such risk. 

Nuclear bombs are made from plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) (Deutch & Lester, 2004). These materials are not available naturally. Their production requires expensive technologies and facilities that are beyond the abilities that terrorist groups have. Therefore, this shows that there is hope of efficiently keeping these nuclear weapons out of the reach of the terrorists.

Despite the fact that it is difficult to make Plutonium and HEU, it may not be challenging to steal them. Many countries have these nuclear materials stored in facilities. Some of these nations have tight security around these materials but others do not pay much attention to the security detail around these facilities. There are also no standards that have been set out on a global scale that can help determine how well nuclear material should be safeguarded. The theft of nuclear material is not a far-fetched concern; it is something that is being experienced actively. Fifteen cases of plutonium or HEU have been reported and confirmed by the countries involved. In the majority of these cases, the smugglers attempted to sell the material to anyone who was willing to purchase it, including terrorist groups. 

On matters regarding the amount of expertise that is required to make a nuclear bomb, studies have shown that a crude nuclear bomb can be attained by highly skilled individuals using materials that are readily available. The work also does not necessarily have to involve massive facilities that are likely to draw the attention of government. Obtaining the material and making a crude bomb seems like a complicated process. However, sophisticated terrorist groups might be able to pull off this task. 

The amount of raw material needed to make a nuclear bomb is dependent on the level of skills that the bomb maker has (Hoodbhoy, 2013). The gun-type nuclear bomb that is simplistic in form and nature would require about fifty kilograms of HEU, an amount that would fit in a suitcase. Plutonium cannot be used to make this type of this bomb. The neutrons emitted by plutonium cause the bomb to blow itself before proceeding far. On the other hand, implosion types of bombs that are more efficient in nature require less amount of material. Six kilograms of plutonium or fifteen of HEU would make these kinds of bombs. These relatively small amounts mean that terrorists could potentially build a bomb that is highly explosive. 

The thought that terrorist could steal an already assembled nuclear bomb is nerve wrecking. Well, already assembled nuclear weapons are better secured than the materials that are used to make them. A stolen nuclear weapon would be quite challenging to figure out. The weapons are fitted with electronic that only allows it to go off after a code is keyed in. However, in other cases, these locks are absent or easy to bypass. Modern nuclear weapons also have devices that prevent them from going off until a flight sequence is attained. The flight sequence allows a rocket like flight that is enabled by coasting through the atmosphere before going off. Therefore, terrorists will have a hard time trying to detonate the stolen nuclear weapon. 

There have not been any cases reported on missing suitcase nukes (Thor, 2007). Although in the 1990s, there were allegations that more than 100 nuclear weapons were missing and unaccounted for in Russia. However, such claims were firmly denied by the Ministry of Defense, and ultimately enough information was released to nullify the case. 


The suitcase nuclear fission devices were first developed in the 1950s and 1960s by the United States and the Soviet Union. The plausibility of suitcase nuclear fission devices being accessible to terrorists is a matter that can be discussed from different dimensions. The lack of natural availability of the materials used to make these nuclear bombs gives hope that the risk can be alleviated. Despite this, there is the possibility of theft where these materials are not well secured. In the case where terrorists have access to these materials, only a crude bomb can be attained even where highly skilled individuals are involved. Terrorists will also have to make away with a considerable amount of these raw materials if they are to achieve a gun-type nuclear bomb. An implosion type of bomb would require fewer amounts of the materials but require the use of plutonium whose neutrons are quite explosive. 

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An assembled nuclear bomb, on the other hand, would require a tremendous amount of effort to get through the electric locks. Modern technology has also seen the evolution of securing nuclear bombs through the attainment of flight sequences. There haven’t been any recounted cases of missing suitcase nuclear fission devices till date. 

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  1. Deutch, J. M., & Lester, R. K. (2004). Making technology work: applications in energy and the environment. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.
  2. Hoodbhoy, P. A. (2013). Confronting the bomb: Pakistani and Indian scientists speak out. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Jenkins, B. M. (2006). Unconquerable nation: knowing our enemy, strengthening ourselves. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp.
  4. Miklaucic, M., Brewer, J., & Starvridis, J. (2013). Convergence: illicit networks and national security in the age of globalization
  5. Thor, B. (2007). State of the Union: a thriller. New York: Pocket Books.
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