September 24, 2001
Chances of a nuclear attack rated 'very low'
By Dan Vergano
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, coupled with atomic bomb warnings from a recent government-sponsored terrorism report, have increased public concerns about the possibility of nuclear terror.
"It's the ultimate nightmare, a terrorist with a nuclear weapon," says analyst Jason Pate of the Monterey (Calif.) Institute of International Studies. However, he rates the chances of such an attack as "very, very low," because terrorists can cause great mayhem using conventional bombs. According to experts, nuclear threats center on four scenarios (in increasing likelihood):
* A terrorist creates a crude bomb using smuggled uranium.
* A nuclear weapon is smuggled from an unstable nation.
* A conventional bomb is used to blow up radioactive materials, poisoning people.
* A nuclear power facility or nuclear waste storage site is attacked.
Nuclear power plants remain on alert at their "highest level of security" following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "We're all on our toes here," says Rosetta Virgilio, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Rockville, Md. An NRC emergency response center remains fully staffed and up and running since the attack.
The recent tragedies raise the specter of suicide attacks on U.S. nuclear facilities, says Rich Hayes of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass.
Sources of worry:
* A 1974 study of a common nuclear reactor design found that a passenger jet crash would destroy its walls 86% of the time.
* A 1982 study found that a reactor catastrophe near New York would cause 50,000 deaths and $ 314 billion in damages.
* "Force on force" mock terrorist attacks on plants conducted by the NRC since 2000 showed that reactors would have been damaged in 6 of 11 attempts.
* Regulations allow newly hired employees to work inside nuclear power plants while their background security clearance checks are still underway.
Worldwide, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the discovery following the 1991 Gulf War that Iraq was pursuing nuclear weapons have generated fears of a smuggled bomb leaving one of these countries. Creating a bomb takes a massive industrial infrastructure that makes state sponsorship almost a certain prerequisite, experts say.
Since 1991, efforts like the Defense Department's Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which seeks to control and reduce nuclear warheads in Russia, have become features of U.S. foreign policy. Of 30,000 nuclear warheads then in Russia, some 13,300 have been destroyed with the program's help, according to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. About $ 2.7 billion has gone toward such efforts. "Money well spent," Pate says.
Efforts to monitor Iraq's program have been moribund since the 1998 eviction of U.N. inspectors from that country. Iraqi efforts continue to worry experts.
Most worrisome, Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan and has links with Osama bin Laden, also possesses "dozens of nuclear devices," says Tim Brown of GlobalSecurity.org, a think tank in Alexandria, Va. Experts fear that a military coup in Pakistan would put nuclear warheads in the hands of terrorists.
Attempts by Osama bin Laden to purchase nuclear materials have reportedly been stymied by a lack of it on the black market.
"We'll be worried about this for a long time," Pate says. "We have to be careful not to let our worst-case scenarios spin out of control."
Copyright 2001 Gannett Company, Inc.