The Threat of Nuclear Terrorism and September 11th: Wake-Up Call to Get the Treaties Right

Article excerpt

There are two international treaties currently being drafted specifically on nuclear terrorism. (1) Both could require that specific measures be taken worldwide to protect and secure nuclear facilities from terrorist attack and sabotage; but neither one does. United States' efforts to include such requirements were thwarted by some of our closest "coalition" allies before September 11th. Now is the time to revive those efforts. September 11th should have taught us some important lessons.


The first lesson is that we can no longer assume that no one "in his right mind" would commit a terrorist act for fear of dying or being exposed to dangerous ionizing radiation. It is now clear that large numbers of people are more than willing to die as martyrs for a cause. This undercuts a presumption, which up to now, played a major role behind assessments of what is required to defend nuclear materials and facilities against terrorists and sabotage.

The second lesson is drawn from the first: so-called "dirty" bombs are now more plausible. We can no longer assume that a terrorist will be deterred by concerns of self-preservation in order to build or disperse a "dirty" bomb, a conventional explosive device designed to disperse radioactivity, whether as a result of radioactive material being made a part of the device, or it being made the target of the device. For example, a bomb directed at a nuclear reactor or a spent fuel pond where "used" but highly radioactive fuel rods are cooling is a "dirty" bomb. The effects of such a "dirty" bomb would not, of course, equal the devastation of exploding a nuclear device, but its effects would be psychological and politically calamitous. In the town of Goiania in Brazil, the rupture of a radioactive "source," which had been used for medical purposes but carelessly discarded caused disruption, panic, several deaths, and hundreds of people, buildings, and large tracts of land to be contaminated. (2)

The third lesson is, what happens in other parts of the world can have a direct impact upon Americans' safety and security. While we strive to make sure our own nuclear facilities are safe from theft or sabotage, a potential terrorist might well be able to obtain material through theft or illegal purchase in other countries for delivery to our doorstep. There are technical limitations in detecting nuclear material at border locations. (3) For example, do we know how well the containers arriving at the Port of Newark are screened? The preventive approach calls for measures to make sure the material never leaves its place of origin, as we attempt to do with other material we do not want to enter the country.

Fourth, as far as terrorism treaties are concerned, they miss the mark. They focus on criminalizing the acts and punishing the terrorists, but only after the thief has let the horse out of the barn. (4) In view of the nature of this beast--dangerous radioactive material--the point should be to make sure the thief does not get anywhere near the barn. Nuclear terrorism treaties should require specific measures of prevention to make it harder for would-be terrorists to commit acts of nuclear terrorism.


Today, there are no binding preventive measures on the international level; each country is on its own. It is the responsibility of national governments to provide for protection and security as part of their "sovereign" rights and responsibilities. (5) That does not fly after September 11th. Today, it is in our best interest to have countries thousands of miles away apply preventive measures to make it more difficult for terrorists to get their hands on this material and to inflict harm on others including our own citizens.


In the past, treaties and international regulation have focused on certain radioactive material considered "dangerous" because it can be used to make nuclear weapons. …