A Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

Radiological/Nuclear Adversaries Future Project

Radiological/Nuclear Adversaries Future Project

Other START Researchers: 
Michelle Jacome

Project Details


This study leveraged intellectual expertise across several disciplines to establish the effects of variations in environmental context factors on altering the future of the radiological/nuclear (RN) threat space within the next decade. To further explore potential future vulnerabilities, START developed five world states that illustrate the possible parameters of the future RN threat landscape.

Through a review of current literature and consultation with subject matter experts, seven environmental context factor categories were selected: U.S. politics, demographics, economics, geopolitics, RN technology, proliferation, and geopolitical shocks.  Within each category, the exploration of context factors drew upon existing scholarly and policy forecasts and covered the most likely, worst, and best case scenarios envisaged over the next decade.  START conducted a stakeholder workshop during which leading experts designated five separate combinations of context factors to serve as the rudimentary elements of five world state narratives.  The implications of each world state for various drivers of the RN threat (adversary motivation and capability; availability and security of source materials; and sustainment and capability of the Global Nuclear Detection Architecture (GNDA)) were also considered in order to provide GNDA planners with guidance in developing robust policy responses. The world states and associated threat drivers incorporated the results of online elicitations of subject matter experts from a variety of domains, which addressed future violent non-state actor (VNSA) RN behavior given the attributes of the VNSAs, the requisite technologies for acquiring or constructing an RN weapon, and the larger global context in which the VNSAs operate. Rather than attempting to predict the precise future threat posed by RN weapons, the study explored the parameters of the RN threat under a variety of environmental conditions, thus enabling the development of counterterrorism and counterproliferation policies and structures that are robust against a broad range of possible future threat environments.    

Primary Findings: 

The various world states highlight an array of potential vulnerabilities in controlling RN materials. The baseline (what can be termed “trend world”) forecasts an overall reduction in nuclear weapons, a zero-to minimal increase in the availability of nuclear materials, and a significant increase in the availability of radiological materials.  At the same time, physical security of these materials is likely to decrease overall as the number of RN facilities increases in the developing world, but this may be offset by improvements in general surveillance and monitoring technologies and other capabilities.

The remaining four world states that were generated outline a series of variations from the baseline along one or more of the environmental context factors.  One world state describes a significant systemic shock with large quantities of radiological materials being removed from regulatory control.  This shock, however, leads to major improvements in the security of the remainder of RN materials under regulatory control.  In contrast, in the three other world states, the global community faces significantly increased availability of RN materials and knowledge, as well as decreased overall source security


Project Period: 
October 2012 to December 2013