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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

Associated Press November 9, 2001

Radiation bomb: Crude but deadly device is most feared nuke

By Jim Krane

NEW YORK -- Among the terrorist weapons experts worry about, one device tops the list: the atom bomb. While chances are remote that a terrorist might obtain one of the suitcase-sized nuclear bombs produced by the United States or former Soviet Union, analysts worry that a crude but deadly device might be fashioned from stolen nuclear material and a few sticks of dynamite. Such a radiological bomb wouldn't yield a nuclear explosion but rather a plume of toxic radiation.

"Had the terrorists at the World Trade Center used a radiological dispersal device, most parts of lower Manhattan would have been rendered uninhabitable," said Tariq Rauf, director of the nonproliferation program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Such a bomb requires neither knowledge of physics nor the rigors of smuggling weapons-grade uranium or plutonium.

"It's not that hard to build a radiological bomb since all you have to do is disperse a bunch of radioactive material," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Highly radioactive material is stored at over 1,000 facilities in 50 countries, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The group says some facilities have insufficient security against would-be thieves looking for bomb ingredients.

America's defense against nuclear smuggling consists of pressuring countries to bolster safeguards on weapons-usable and radioactive material, along with boosting border defenses in the United States and in countries on likely transit routes.

The nuclear terrorism threat, however remote, remains serious enough for President Bush to describe it in a speech eastern European leaders on Tuesday. Court documents show that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network has sought nuclear material. It is unclear whether the group succeeded.

"The probability is not zero," said Tim Brown, an intelligence and military analyst with GlobalSecurity.org. "It's somewhere between zero and low."

Analysts who have examined the threat describe three separate scenarios.

In the first, a so-called "suitcase nuke," probably from the ex-Soviet Union, could be sold to terrorists, who would seek to smuggle it into the United States, or within range of an U.S. overseas interest.

In the depths of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union each produced a few hundred portable nuclear weapons, said Rauf. The U.S. munitions were intended to slow a hypothetical Soviet invasion of western Europe by demolishing bridges and railways, he said.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, rumors pointing to missing portable Soviet nuclear weapons have percolated through the defense community. None have been verified.

One stems from 1997 statements by Russian General Alexander Lebed, who said some portable Soviet weapons were unaccounted for. Another originates in Russian press reports that Chechen rebels stole, or attempted to steal, small nuclear weapons from a military base. In a third case, a pair of ethnic Russians were arrested in Miami in 1997 after offering to sell a suitcase nuke to undercover U.S. Customs agents. No evidence indicated the men had access to such a weapon, said Customs spokesman Dean Boyd.

"I'm not overly concerned about the suitcase bomb threat," said Jon Wolfsthal, an associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The U.S. intelligence services have very high confidence that Russia has accounted for all its nuclear weapons."

A second threat scenario involves a terrorist group building its own nuclear bomb using smuggled nuclear material. The International Atomic Energy Agency has documented 18 cases of weapons-grade nuclear smuggling since 1993, among hundreds of cases of trafficking in radioactive materials. None of the cases involved enough for a bomb.

About a dozen countries have the material, but the largest amount -- some 1,300 metric tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium -- sits in Russian weapons facilities and laboratories, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

"It's very hard to track," Wolfsthal said. "There's no way to verify that materials aren't already missing. The Russians themselves don't know themselves how much they have."

Since 1992, U.S. agencies have spent more than $5 billion helping Russia upgrade security at the sites, and making sure weapons scientists were peaceably employed. Border guards in the region trained by U.S. Customs have already seized radioactive materials, including, in 1999, 10 grams of weapons-grade uranium hidden inside a car traveling into Bulgaria.

Still, a terrorist-made A-bomb is a low-probability threat. "Even Saddam Hussein's weapons program, after 10 years and several billion dollars in investments, was not able to make a nuclear bomb," Rauf said.

The radiological bomb is a much simpler matter.

Depending on its potency, a contamination-spewing radiological bomb could kill dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands. Its toxic plume could render a square mile or more uninhabitable for a decade or longer. It would cause a huge cleanup and demoralize a city, perhaps a nation.

In the case of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown, a six-mile belt around the reactor is still uninhabitable, Rauf said.

"To a terrorist who is trying to create widespread panic, this option is more appealing," Rauf said. "You can see the white powder of anthrax, but not radiation. It can be carried by wind, by the water. In the public mind, a radiological device is more terrorizing."

(c) Copyright 2001. Associated Press