Via Gene Healy, here’s a Wall Street Journal article that offers some perspective on the “suitcase nuke.” In a nutshell, it’s barely more than an urban legend. As Viktor Yesin, former chief of staff of Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces, explains:
Let’s start by noting that “nuclear suitcase” is a term coined by journalists. Journalistic parlance, if you wish. The matter concerns special compact nuclear devices of knapsack type. Igor Valynkin, commander of the 12th Main Directorate of the Defense Ministry responsible for nuclear ordnance storage, was absolutely honest when he was saying in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta in 1997 that “there have never been any nuclear suitcases, grips, handbags or other carryalls.”
As for special compact nuclear devices, the Americans were the first to assemble them. They were called Special Atomic Demolition Munitions (SADM). As of 1964, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps had two models of SADM at their disposal–M-129 and M-159. Each SADM measured 87 x 65 x 67 centimeters [34 by 26 by 26 inches]. A container with the backpack weighed 70 kilograms [154 pounds]. There were about 300 SADMs in all. The foreign media reported that all these devices were dismantled and disposed of within the framework of the unilateral disarmament initiatives declared by the first President Bush in late 1991 and early 1992.
The Soviet Union initiated production of special compact nuclear devices in 1967. These munitions were called special mines. There were fewer models of them in the Soviet Union than in the United States. All of these munitions were to be dismantled before 2000 in accordance with the Russian and American commitments concerning reduction of tactical nuclear weapons dated 1991. [When the Soviet Union collapsed, Boris Yeltsin reiterated the commitment in January 1992.] Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said at the conference on the Nuclear Weapons Nonproliferation Treaty in April 2000 that Russia had practically completed dismantling “nuclear mines.” It means that Russia kept the promise Yeltsin once made to the international community.
No one disputes that Osama bin Laden would desperately like to get his hands on a nuclear weapon. But as the article explains, there are three ways to get a nuclear weapon–buy it, steal it, or make it yourself. And luckily, each of these methods appears to be well out of Al Qaeda’s reach. Anti-proliferation efforts are important, of course, but the real nuclear threat comes from states, not terrorists.