The New York Times ran a very welcome or at least overdue and necessary editorial Monday “Keeping Nuclear Weapons from Terrorists” .
The editorial notes the nuclear waste around the world, particularly former Soviet republics, a concern that has drawn the laser focus of former GA Senator Sam Nunn and the Nuclear Threat Institute. Recently escalating stories in the media about security lapses and incidents around a nuclear power plant in Belgium add to the concern.
It is considerably more likely that a terrorist could build a dirty bomb than an actual atomic bomb, although handling of the raw materials is quite difficult and would normally cause radiation sickness for perpetrators quickly, a horrible way to die (as with the polonium assassination of a Russian Putin competitor in London, a mini dirty weapon which may have set a precedent).
But the consequences for a western society could be irreversible, especially in a large urban center like NYC. It would not be immediately medically dangerous to most adults, but it would make large areas of real estate worthless and uninhabitable, sending a lot of people into instant poverty. There is no real precedent in a western country for handling this kind of event – except maybe Fukushima in Japan (or Chernobyl, in the Ukraine when it was a Soviet republic). Motivation for such an event would be more likely secular politics than religious, as comporting to the thinking of “expropriation” by the radical Left in the early 1970s (or by the Bolsheviks themselves.
The other biggest practical existential threat remains EMP, which does not require nuclear weapons (contrary to common belief). And there are long term technical solutions which require attention from policy makers, without respect to partisanship. But Ted Cruz did us a favor in bringing it up.