Is the U.S. Prepared for Nuclear Terrorism? the United States Finds Itself at Greater Risk of an Attack by Unclear-Based Weaponry Today Than at the Height of the Cold War. (Viewpoint)

By Stanton, John J. | Security Management, March 2002 | Go to article overview

Is the U.S. Prepared for Nuclear Terrorism? the United States Finds Itself at Greater Risk of an Attack by Unclear-Based Weaponry Today Than at the Height of the Cold War. (Viewpoint)


Stanton, John J., Security Management


In October 2001, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, two portable moisture density gauges containing sealed sources of radioactive material were reported stolen off the back of a pickup truck at a worksite, despite being properly chained and locked. The event was disturbing, but not unusual. There are approximately 150,000 licensees for radioactive materials in the U.S. and 2 million devices containing radioactive material in use in the U.S. today," according to Richard Meserve, chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). From these, "an average of approximately sources or devices of all kinds are reported lost or stolen each year in the U.S., that is, roughly one per day," says Meserve.

That chilling statistic illustrates why, in a rum of events worthy of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, the United States finds itself at greater risk of an attack by nuclear-based weaponry today than at the height of the Cold War. Analysts say that this new nuclear threat will never be eliminated, only minimized. They point to the quantities of lost or stolen (called "orphaned") radioactive waste in the United States and around the world that would be easy for terrorist groups to obtain. They also point to the arsenal of loosely guarded Russian tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs), some of which are also already missing. As Michael Levi of the Nuclear Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., puts it: Orphans tend to find parents real fast."

Indeed, there is a lucrative international market for nuclear equipment and radioactive material. Between 1993 and 2001, the Illicit Trafficking Database Programme of the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA), in which 70 nations participate, recorded instances of trafficking, of which about half involved radioactive sources. The IAEA reports that the number of incidents of trafficking has increased in recent years, mainly involving radioactive sources, such as highly enriched uranium. As recently as December 2001, Russian authorities arrested a group attempting to sell two pounds of weapons-grade uranium.

Levi suggests that threat assessors think creatively when trying to determine how terrorists might irradiate a population. "We tend to associate terrorists with things that blow up. The prevailing view is that a radiological dispersion device (RDD) or nuclear bomb will be the preferred method of delivery, but it's equally likely that terrorists will buy radioactive waste and manually disperse it in terminals, subways, or other crowded places," although that might not compare to the psychological damage inflicted by the explosion of an RDD or the detonation of a low-yield nuclear weapon in a U.S. city.

Of course, the successful detonation of a low-yield nuclear device or RDD would far surpass the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September u, 2001.

But can an RDD or nuclear device be built? The evidence from the IAEA's Illicit Trafficking Database Programme and the NRC's "orphaned" U.S. materials list indicates that radioactive material could easily find its way into the wrong hands. And although an RDD is likely to emit deadly radiation to its attacker, September 11th proved that the willingness of terrorists to sacrifice their own lives should not be underestimated,

"The Russians believe very strongly that a sophisticated sub-state group with 30-50 people using off-the-shelf equipment could actually create the bomb-grade materials from low-grade uranium and make several bombs a year," says Dr. Bruce Blair, President of the Center for Defense Information.

It's no secret that a few good physicists can get together and do the math for a rudimentary nuclear weapon. In fact, physicists on track to be employed by U.S. nuclear weapons labs bide their time engaging in "Nth Country Experiments," while awaiting security clearances.

"The labs routinely conduct break-in assignments like Nth Country where they have the new employees do their best to design a nuclear weapon on the cheap. …

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