U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

NCJRS Virtual Library

The Virtual Library houses over 235,000 criminal justice resources, including all known OJP works.
Click here to search the NCJRS Virtual Library

Wild Atom Nuclear Terrorism

NCJ Number
Date Published
76 pages
This document summarized a game in which participants role-played as American officials dealing with a nuclear weapons crisis.
The United States is still not equipped to manage the threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) against civilian populations. The Wild Atom exercise was conducted in November 1996 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies Global Organized Crime Project’s Nuclear Black Market Task Force. The exercise helped propose initiatives to strengthen U.S. policy and capabilities against nuclear terrorism. The exercise’s objectives included: examining the interplay of intelligence, law enforcement, and scientific crisis support for national decision-makers; highlighting technical constraints in detecting weapons-usable nuclear materials; and evaluating the adequacy of existing international laws and agreements to prevent nuclear smuggling. The document established a hypothetical situation in which weapons-grade plutonium was smuggled out of Russia and sold to the Iranian-backed Hizballah. National Security Council memos outlined the intelligence and initial contacts between major players. Participants played the roles of various high ranking officials, such as the National Security Advisor and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The document quotes their conversations. A memo from the National Security Council on Day Two reports a nuclear explosion outside Moscow. Chechen separatists claimed responsibility. Hizballah claims that it also has nuclear weapons. Other conversations were quoted. But in the end nothing was decided or could prevent a freighter carrying a crude nuclear device from entering Baltimore harbor. Although the 70 players were well-qualified, an artificial exercise never replicates what officials would do in a real-world situation. Observers noted that the participants tended to focus on traditional, agency-specific approaches and responses, and digressed to longer-term goals. There was also a tendency to take intelligence at face value. Insufficient probing of the perpetrators’ motives left policy options unexplored. One-problem-at-a-time blinders caused participants to let valuable time slip away and neglect other concerns. Deliberations were not action-oriented. From the exercise, participants opined that linkages between policy, intelligence, and law enforcement communities should be strengthened. A lead agency should be designated for nuclear smuggling and terrorism. While some participants said that the sharing of intelligence among nations must be in place, others pointed to specific obstacles to closer international collaboration, such as the residue of distrust from the Cold War. The exercise highlighted the lack of a national policy to deal with a nuclear terrorist crisis. Participants agreed that the United States needed to develop new, inexpensive, compact, multiple-threat detectors.