Vulnerability to Terrorism in Nuclear Spent Fuel Management (2015 – present)

Nuclear terrorism is a complex global problem that is inherently tied up with others, including climate change, poverty, violent extremism, trafficking, transnational crime, and human rights violations. As a symbol of this complexity, we chose a tightly tangled rope. Such a snarl is nearly impossible to remove without cutting the rope unless you know ancient mariner and nomadic techniques. This symbol invites us to discuss strategies for disentanglement.


The Vulnerability to Terrorism in Nuclear Spent Fuel Management project will focus on reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism arising from the post-Fukushima management of spent fuel in Japan and the Northeast Asian region. To this end, the project will identify the potential for nuclear terrorism in Japan, both terrorist diversion and detonation of a nuclear weapon; or terrorist attack on nuclear facilities to conduct radiological warfare—in particular, spent fuel pools.

In year 1, the project will conduct research to estimate the differential quantities of separated plutonium that will be produced in a minimalist once-through nuclear fuel cycle versus a maximalist closed nuclear fuel cycle in Japan and the region, and examine the implications of these pathways for the risk of nuclear terrorism. It will further engage stakeholders across sectors and at multiple levels to envision how the fuel cycle choice may lead to different nuclear terrorism outcomes. The project will focus on the decision to restart reactors in Japan as the fulcrum that will set Japan on either a once-through nuclear fuel cycle that minimizes the risk of nuclear terrorism, or on a revived closed fuel cycle that maximizes the risk of nuclear terrorism. The primary outcome of this project will be to inform participants in local reactor restart decisions in Japan as to the risks of nuclear terrorism arising from not adopting the once-through fuel cycle with the associated spent fuel management.

In year 2, the project will engage national-level civil society organizations, nuclear security and fuel cycle experts, corporate and central government officials. Funds permitting, regional stakeholders from Korea, China, and Taiwan, may participate in the year 2 activities to examine the regional implications of contracting versus expanding the potential for nuclear terrorism in this region.

This project is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.