By Bill Keller,
All scenarios of nuclear terrorist attack on America, all rumors and conjectures. Modeling of possible attacks. Fears and reality
May 26, 2002
(for personal use only)
Not If But When
Everybody who spends much time thinking about nuclear terrorism can give you a scenario, something diabolical and, theoretically, doable. Michael A. Levi, a researcher at the Federation of American Scientists, imagines a homemade nuclear explosive device detonated inside a truck passing through one of the tunnels into Manhattan. The blast would crater portions of the New York skyline, barbecue thousands of people instantly, condemn thousands more to a horrible death from radiation sickness and -- by virtue of being underground -- would vaporize many tons of concrete and dirt and river water into an enduring cloud of lethal fallout. Vladimir Shikalov, a Russian nuclear physicist who helped clean up after the 1986 Chernobyl accident, envisioned for me an attack involving highly radioactive cesium-137 loaded into some kind of homemade spraying device, and a target that sounded particularly unsettling when proposed across a Moscow kitchen table -- Disneyland.
In this case, the human toll would be much less ghastly, but the panic that would result from contaminating the Magic Kingdom with a modest amount of cesium -- Shikalov held up his teacup to illustrate how much – would probably shut the place down for good and constitute a staggering strike at Americans` sense of innocence. Shikalov, a nuclear enthusiast who thinks most people are ridiculously squeamish about radiation, added that personally he would still be happy to visit Disneyland after the terrorists struck, although he would pack his own food and drink and destroy his clothing afterward.
Another Russian, Dmitry Borisov, a former official of his country`s atomic energy ministry, conjured a suicidal pilot. (Suicidal pilots, for obvious reasons, figure frequently in these fantasies.) In Borisov`s scenario, the hijacker dive-bombs an Aeroflot jetliner into the Kurchatov Institute, an atomic research center in a gentrifying neighborhood of Moscow, which I had just visited the day before our conversation. The facility contains 26 nuclear reactors of various sizes and a huge accumulation of radioactive material. The effect would probably be measured more in property values than in body bags, but some people say the same about Chernobyl.
Maybe it is a way to tame a fearsome subject by Hollywoodizing it, or maybe it is a way to drive home the dreadful stakes in the arid-sounding business of nonproliferation, but in several weeks of talking to specialists here and in Russia about the threats an amateur evildoer might pose to the homeland, I found an unnerving abundance of such morbid creativity. I heard a physicist wonder whether a suicide bomber with a pacemaker would constitute an effective radiation weapon. (I`m a little ashamed to say I checked that one, and the answer is no, since pacemakers powered by plutonium have not been implanted for the past 20 years.) I have had people theorize about whether hijackers who took over a nuclear research laboratory could improvise an actual nuclear explosion on the spot. (Expert opinions differ, but it`s very unlikely.) I`ve been instructed how to disperse plutonium into the ventilation system of an office building.
The realistic threats settle into two broad categories. The less likely but far more devastating is an actual nuclear explosion, a great hole blown in the heart of New York or Washington, followed by a toxic fog of radiation. This could be produced by a black-market nuclear warhead procured from an existing arsenal. Russia is the favorite hypothetical source, although Pakistan, which has a program built on shady middlemen and covert operations, should not be overlooked. Or the explosive could be a homemade device, lower in yield than a factory nuke but still creating great carnage.
The second category is a radiological attack, contaminating a public place with radioactive material by packing it with conventional explosives in a ``dirty bomb`` by dispersing it into the air or water or by sabotaging a nuclear facility. By comparison with the task of creating nuclear fission, some of these schemes would be almost childishly simple, although the consequences would be less horrifying: a panicky evacuation, a gradual increase in cancer rates, a staggeringly expensive cleanup, possibly the need to demolish whole neighborhoods. Al Qaeda has claimed to have access to dirty bombs, which is unverified but entirely plausible, given that the makings are easily gettable.
Nothing is really new about these perils. The means to inflict nuclear harm on America have been available to rogues for a long time. Serious studies of the threat of nuclear terror date back to the 1970`s. American programs to keep Russian nuclear ingredients from falling into murderous hands -- one of the subjects high on the agenda in President Bush`s meetings in Moscow this weekend -- were hatched soon after the Soviet Union disintegrated a decade ago. When terrorists get around to trying their first nuclear assault, as you can be sure they will, there will be plenty of people entitled to say I told you so.
All Sept. 11 did was turn a theoretical possibility into a felt danger. All it did was supply a credible cast of characters who hate us so much they would thrill to the prospect of actually doing it -- and, most important in rethinking the probabilities, would be happy to die in the effort. All it did was give our nightmares legs.
And of the many nightmares animated by the attacks, this is the one with pride of place in our experience and literature -- and, we know from his own lips, in Osama bin Laden`s aspirations. In February, Tom Ridge, the Bush administration`s homeland security chief, visited The Times for a conversation, and at the end someone asked, given all the things he had to worry about -- hijacked airliners, anthrax in the mail, smallpox, germs in crop-dusters -- what did he worry about most? He cupped his hands prayerfully and pressed his fingertips to his lips. ``Nuclear,`` he said simply.
My assignment here was to stare at that fear and inventory the possibilities. How afraid should we be, and what of, exactly? I`ll tell you at the outset, this was not one of those exercises in which weighing the fears and assigning them probabilities laid them to rest. I`m not evacuating Manhattan, but neither am I sleeping quite as soundly. As I was writing this early one Saturday in April, the floor began to rumble and my desk lamp wobbled precariously. Although I grew up on the San Andreas Fault, the fact that New York was experiencing an earthquake was only my second thought.
The best reason for thinking it won`t happen is that it hasn`t happened yet, and that is terrible logic. The problem is not so much that we are not doing enough to prevent a terrorist from turning our atomic knowledge against us (although we are not). The problem is that there may be no such thing as ``enough.``
25,000 Warheads, and It Only Takes One
My few actual encounters with the Russian nuclear arsenal are all associated with Thomas Cochran. Cochran, a physicist with a Tennessee lilt and a sense of showmanship, is the director of nuclear issues for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which promotes environmental protection and arms control. In 1989, when glasnost was in flower, Cochran persuaded the Soviet Union to open some of its most secret nuclear venues to a roadshow of American scientists and congressmen and invited along a couple of reporters. We visited a Soviet missile cruiser bobbing in the Black Sea and drank vodka with physicists and engineers in the secret city where the Soviets first produced plutonium for weapons.
Not long ago Cochran took me cruising through the Russian nuclear stockpile again, this time digitally. The days of glasnost theatrics are past, and this is now the only way an outsider can get close to the places where Russians store and deploy their nuclear weapons. On his office computer in Washington, Cochran has installed a detailed United States military map of Russia and superimposed upon it high-resolution satellite photographs. We spent part of a morning mouse-clicking from missile-launch site to submarine base, zooming in like voyeurs and contemplating the possibility that a terrorist could figure out how to steal a nuclear warhead from one of these places.
``Here are the bunkers,`` Cochran said, enlarging an area the size of a football stadium holding a half-dozen elongated igloos. We were hovering over a site called Zhukovka, in western Russia. We were pleased to see it did not look ripe for a hijacking.
``You see the bunkers are fenced, and then the whole thing is fenced again,`` Cochran said. ``Just outside you can see barracks and a rifle range for the guards. These would be troops of the 12th Main Directorate. Somebody`s not going to walk off the street and get a Russian weapon out of this particular storage area.``
In the popular culture, nuclear terror begins with the theft of a nuclear weapon. Why build one when so many are lying around for the taking? And stealing tends to make better drama than engineering. Thus the stolen nuke has been a staple in the literature at least since 1961, when Ian Fleming published ``Thunderball,`` in which the malevolent Spectre (the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, a strictly mercenary and more technologically sophisticated precursor to al Qaeda) pilfers a pair of atom bombs from a crashed NATO aircraft. In the movie version of Tom Clancy`s thriller ``The Sum of All Fears,`` due in theaters this week, neo-Nazis get their hands on a mislaid Israeli nuke, and viewers will get to see Baltimore blasted to oblivion.
Eight countries are known to have nuclear weapons -- the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan and Israel. David Albright, a nuclear-weapons expert and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, points out that Pakistan`s program in particular was built almost entirely through black markets and industrial espionage, aimed at circumventing Western export controls. Defeating the discipline of nuclear nonproliferation is ingrained in the culture. Disaffected individuals in Pakistan (which, remember, was intimate with the Taliban) would have no trouble finding the illicit channels or the rationalization for diverting materials, expertise -- even, conceivably, a warhead.
But the mall of horrors is Russia, because it currently maintains something like 15,000 of the world`s (very roughly) 25,000 nuclear warheads, ranging in destructive power from about 500 kilotons, which could kill a million people, down to the one-kiloton land mines that would be enough to make much of Manhattan uninhabitable. Russia is a country with sloppy accounting, a disgruntled military, an audacious black market and indigenous terrorists.
There is anecdotal reason to worry. Gen. Igor Valynkin, commander of the 12th Main Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Russian military sector in charge of all nuclear weapons outside the Navy, said recently that twice in the past year terrorist groups were caught casing Russian weapons-storage facilities. But it`s hard to know how seriously to take this. When I made the rounds of nuclear experts in Russia earlier this year, many were skeptical of these near-miss anecdotes, saying the security forces tend to exaggerate such incidents to dramatize their own prowess (the culprits are always caught) and enhance their budgets. On the whole, Russian and American military experts sound not very alarmed about the vulnerability of Russia`s nuclear warheads.
They say Russia takes these weapons quite seriously, accounts for them rigorously and guards them carefully. There is no confirmed case of a warhead being lost. Strategic warheads, including the 4,000 or so that President Bush and President Vladimir Putin have agreed to retire from service, tend to be stored in hard-to-reach places, fenced and heavily guarded, and their whereabouts are not advertised. The people who guard them are better paid and more closely vetted than most Russian soldiers.
Eugene E. Habiger, the four-star general who was in charge of American strategic weapons until 1998 and then ran nuclear antiterror programs for the Energy Department, visited several Russian weapons facilities in 1996 and 1997. He may be the only American who has actually entered a Russian bunker and inspected a warhead in situ. Habiger said he found the overall level of security comparable to American sites, although the Russians depend more on people than on technology to protect their nukes.
The image of armed terrorist commandos storming a nuclear bunker is cinematic, but it`s far more plausible to think of an inside job. No observer of the unraveling Russian military has much trouble imagining that a group of military officers, disenchanted by the humiliation of serving a spent superpower, embittered by the wretched conditions in which they spend much of their military lives or merely greedy, might find a way to divert a warhead to a terrorist for the right price. (The Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, infamous for such ruthless exploits as taking an entire hospital hostage, once hinted that he had an pportunity to buy a nuclear warhead from the stockpile.) The anecdotal evidence of desperation in the military is plentiful and disquieting. Every year the Russian press provides stories like that of the 19-year-old sailor who went on a rampage aboard an Akula-class nuclear submarine, killing eight people and threatening to blow up the boat and its nuclear reactor; or the five soldiers at Russia`s nuclear-weapons test site who killed a guard, took a hostage and tried to hijack an aircraft, or the officers who reportedly stole five assault helicopters, with their weapons pods, and tried to sell them to North Korea.
The Clinton administration found the danger of disgruntled nuclear caretakers worrisome enough that it considered building better housing for some officers in the nuclear rocket corps. Congress, noting that the United States does not build housing for its own officers, rejected the idea out of hand.
If a terrorist did get his hands on a nuclear warhead, he would still face the problem of setting it off. American warheads are rigged with multiple PAL`s ( ``permissive action links``) -- codes and self-disabling devices designed to frustrate an unauthorized person from triggering the explosion. General Habiger says that when he examined Russian strategic weapons he found the level of protection comparable to our own. ``You`d have to literally break the weapon apart to get into the gut,`` he told me. ``I would submit that a more likely scenario is that there`d be an attempt to get hold of a warhead and not explode the warhead but extract the plutonium or highly enriched uranium.`` In other words, it`s easier to take the fuel and build an entire weapon from scratch than it is to make one of these things go off.
Then again, Habiger is not an expert in physics or weapons design. Then again, the Russians would seem to have no obvious reason for misleading him about something that important. Then again, how many times have computer hackers hacked their way into encrypted computers we were assured were impregnable? Then again, how many computer hackers does al Qaeda have? This subject drives you in circles.
The most troublesome gap in the generally reassuring assessment of Russian weapons security is those tactical nuclear warheads -- smaller, short-range weapons like torpedoes, depth charges, artillery shells, mines. Although their smaller size and greater number makes them ideal candidates for theft, they have gotten far less attention simply because, unlike all of our long range weapons, they happen not to be the subject of any formal treaty. The first President Bush reached an informal understanding with President Gorbachev and then with President Yeltsin that both sides would gather and destroy thousands of tactical nukes. But the agreement included no inventories of the stockpiles, no outside monitoring, no verification of any kind. It was one of those trust-me deals that, in the hindsight of Sept. 11, amount to an enormous black hole in our security.
Did I say earlier there are about 15,000 Russian warheads? That number includes, alongside the scrupulously counted strategic warheads in bombers, missiles and submarines, the commonly used estimate of 8,000 tactical warheads. But that figure is at best an educated guess. Other educated guesses of the tactical nukes in Russia go as low as 4,000 and as high as 30,000. We just don`t know. We don`t even know if the Russians know, since they are famous for doing things off the books. ``They`ll tell you they`ve never lost a weapon,`` said Kenneth Luongo, director of a private antiproliferation group called the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council. ``The fact is, they don`t know. And when you`re talking about warhead counting, you don`t want to miss even one.``
And where are they? Some are stored in reinforced concrete bunkers like the one at Zhukovka. Others are deployed. (When the submarine Kursk sank with its 118 crewmen in August 2000, the Americans` immediate fear was for its nuclear armaments. The standard load out for a submarine of that class includes a couple of nuclear torpedoes and possibly some nuclear depth charges.) Still others are supposed to be in the process of being dismantled under terms of various formal and informal arms-control agreements. Some are in transit. In short, we don`t really know.
The other worrying thing about tactical nukes is that their anti-use devices are believed to be less sophisticated, because the weapons were designed to be employed in the battlefield. Some of the older systems are thought to have no permissive action links at all, so that setting one off would be about as complicated as hot-wiring a car.
Efforts to learn more about the state of tactical stockpiles have been frustrated by reluctance on both sides to let visitors in. Viktor Mikhailov, who ran the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy until 1998 with a famous scorn for America`s nonproliferation concerns, still insists that the United States programs to protect Russian nuclear weapons and material mask a secret agenda of intelligence-gathering. Americans, in turn, sometimes balk at reciprocal access, on the grounds that we are the ones paying the bills for all these safety upgrades, said the former Senator Sam Nunn, co-author of the main American program for securing Russian nukes, called Nunn-Lugar.
``We have to decide if we want the Russians to be transparent -- I`d call it cradle-to-grave transparency with nuclear material and inventories and so forth,`` Nunn told me. ``Then we have to open up more ourselves. This is a big psychological breakthrough we`re talking about here, both for them and for us.``
The Garage Bomb
One of the more interesting facts about the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima is that it had never been tested. All of those spectral images of nuclear coronas brightening the desert of New Mexico -- those were to perfect the more complicated plutonium device that was dropped on Nagasaki. ``Little Boy,`` the Hiroshima bomb, was a rudimentary gunlike device that shot one projectile of highly enriched uranium into another, creating a critical mass that exploded. The mechanics were so simple that few doubted it would work, so the first experiment was in the sky over Japan.
The closest thing to a consensus I heard among those who study nuclear terror was this: building a nuclear bomb is easier than you think, probably easier than stealing one. In the rejuvenated effort to prevent a terrorist from striking a nuclear blow, this is where most of the attention and money are focused.
A nuclear explosion of any kind ``is not a sort of high-probability thing,`` said a White House official who follows the subject closely. ``But getting your hands on enough fissile material to build an improvised nuclear device, to my mind, is the least improbable of them all, and particularly if that material is highly enriched uranium in metallic form. Then I`m really worried. That`s the one.``
To build a nuclear explosive you need material capable of explosive nuclear fission, you need expertise, you need some equipment, and you need a way to deliver it.
Delivering it to the target is, by most reckoning, the simplest part. People in the field generally scoff at the mythologized suitcase bomb; instead they talk of a ``conex bomb,`` using the name of those shack-size steel containers that bring most cargo into the United States. Two thousand containers enter America every hour, on trucks and trains and especially on ships sailing into more than 300 American ports. Fewer than 2 percent are cracked open for inspection, and the great majority never pass through an X-ray machine. Containers delivered to upriver ports like St. Louis or Chicago pass many miles of potential targets before they even reach customs.
``How do you protect against that?`` mused Habiger, the former chief of our nuclear arsenal. ``You can`t. That`s scary. That`s very, very scary. You set one of those off in Philadelphia, in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and you`re going to kill tens of thousands of people, if not more.`` Habiger`s view is ``It`s not a matter of if; it`s a matter of when`` -- which may explain why he now lives in San Antonio.
The Homeland Security office has installed a plan to refocus inspections, making sure the 2 percent of containers that get inspected are those without a clear, verified itinerary. Detectors will be put into place at ports and other checkpoints. This is good, but it hardly represents an ironclad defense. The detection devices are a long way from being reliable. (Inconveniently, the most feared bomb component, uranium, is one of the hardest radioactive substances to detect because it does not emit a lot of radiation prior to fission.) The best way to stop nuclear terror, therefore, is to keep the weapons out of terrorist hands in the first place.
The basic know-how of atom-bomb-building is half a century old, and adequate recipes have cropped up in physics term papers and high school science projects. The simplest design entails taking a lump of highly enriched uranium, about the size of a cantaloupe, and firing it down a big gun barrel into a second lump. Theodore Taylor, the nuclear physicist who designed both the smallest and the largest American nuclear-fission warheads before becoming a remorseful opponent of all things nuclear, told me he recently looked up ``atomic bomb`` in the World Book Encyclopedia in the upstate New York nursing home where he now lives, and he found enough basic information to get a careful reader started. ``It`s accessible all over the place,`` he said. ``I don`t mean just the basic principles. The sizes, specifications, things that work.``
Most of the people who talk about the ease of assembling a nuclear weapon, of course, have never actually built one. The most authoritative assessment I found was a paper, ``Can Terrorists Build Nuclear Weapons?`` written in 1986 by five experienced nuke-makers from the Los Alamos weapons laboratory. I was relieved to learn that fabricating a nuclear weapon is not something a lone madman -- even a lone genius—is likely to pull off in his hobby room. The paper explained that it would require a team with knowledge of ``the physical, chemical and metallurgical properties of the various materials to be used, as well as characteristics affecting their fabrication; neutronic properties; radiation effects, both nuclear and biological; technology concerning high explosives and/or chemical propellants; some hydrodynamics; electrical circuitry; and others.`` Many of these skills are more difficult to acquire than, say, the ability to aim a jumbo jet.
The schemers would also need specialized equipment to form the uranium, which is usually in powdered form, into metal, to cast it and machine it to fit the device. That effort would entail months of preparation, increasing the risk of detection, and it would require elaborate safeguards to prevent a mishap that, as the paper dryly put it, would ``bring the operation to a close.``
Still, the experts concluded, the answer to the question posed in the title, while qualified, was ``Yes, they can.``
David Albright, who worked as a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, says Saddam Hussein`s unsuccessful crash program to build a nuclear weapon in 1990 illustrates how a single bad decision can mean a huge setback. Iraq had extracted highly enriched uranium from research-reactor fuel and had, maybe, barely enough for a bomb. But the manager in charge of casting the metal was so afraid the stuff would spill or get contaminated that he decided to melt it in tiny batches. As a result, so much of the uranium was wasted that he ended up with too little for a bomb.
``You need good managers and organizational people to put the elements together,`` Albright said. ``If you do a straight-line extrapolation, terrorists will all get nuclear weapons. But they make mistakes.``
On the other hand, many experts underestimate the prospect of a do-it-yourself bomb because they are thinking too professionally. All of our experience with these weapons is that the people who make them (states, in other words) want them to be safe, reliable, predictable and efficient. Weapons for the American arsenal are designed to survive a trip around the globe in a missile, to be accident-proof, to produce a precisely specified blast.
But there are many corners you can cut if you are content with a big, ugly, inefficient device that would make a spectacular impression. If your bomb doesn`t need to fit in a suitcase (and why should it?) or to endure the stress of a missile launch; if you don`t care whether the explosive power realizes its full potential; if you`re willing to accept some risk that the thing might go off at the wrong time or might not go off at all, then the job of building it is immeasurably simplified.
``As you get smarter, you realize you can get by with less,`` Albright said. ``You can do it in facilities that look like barns, garages, with simple machine tools. You can do it with 10 to 15 people, not all Ph.D.`s, but some engineers, technicians. Our judgment is that a gun-type device is well within the capability of a terrorist organization.``
All the technological challenges are greatly simplified if terrorists are in league with a country -- a place with an infrastructure. A state is much better suited to hire expertise (like dispirited scientists from decommissioned nuclear installations in the old Soviet Union) or to send its own scientists for M.I.T. degrees.
Thus Tom Cochran said his greatest fear is what you might call a bespoke nuke -- terrorists stealing a quantity of weapons-grade uranium and taking it to Iraq or Iran or Libya, letting the scientists and engineers there fashion it into an elementary weapon and then taking it away for a delivery that would have no return address.
That leaves one big obstacle to the terrorist nuke-maker: the fissile material itself.
To be reasonably sure of a nuclear explosion, allowing for some material being lost in the manufacturing process, you need roughly 50 kilograms -- 110 pounds -- of highly enriched uranium. (For a weapon, more than 90 percent of the material should consist of the very unstable uranium-235 isotope.) Tom Cochran, the master of visual aids, has 15 pounds of depleted uranium that he keeps in a Coke can; an eight-pack would be plenty to build a bomb.
The world is awash in the stuff. Frank von Hippel, a Princeton physicist and arms-control advocate, has calculated that between 1,300 and 2,100 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium exists -- at the low end, enough for 26,000 rough-hewed bombs. The largest stockpile is in Russia, which Senator Joseph Biden calls ``the candy store of candy stores.``
Until a decade ago, Russian officials say, no one worried much about the safety of this material. Viktor Mikhailov, who ran the atomic energy ministry and now presides over an affiliated research institute, concedes there were glaring lapses.
``The safety of nuclear materials was always on our minds, but the focus was on intruders,`` he said. ``The system had never taken account of the possibility that these carefully screened people in the nuclear sphere could themselves represent a danger. The system was not designed to prevent a danger from within.``
Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and, in the early 90`s, a few frightening cases of nuclear materials popping up on the black market.
If you add up all the reported attempts to sell highly enriched uranium or plutonium, even including those that have the scent of security-agency hype and those where the material was of uncertain quality, the total amount of material still falls short of what a bomb-maker would need to construct a single explosive.
But Yuri G. Volodin, the chief of safeguards at Gosatomnadzor, the Russian nuclear regulatory agency, told me his inspectors still discover one or two instances of attempted theft a year, along with dozens of violations of the regulations for storing and securing nuclear material.
And as he readily concedes: ``These are the detected cases. We can`t talk about the cases we don`t know.`` Alexander Pikayev, a former aide to the Defense Committee of the Russian Duma, said: ``The vast majority of installations now have fences. But you know Russians. If you walk along the perimeter, you can see a hole in the fence, because the employees want to come and go freely.``
The bulk of American investment in nuclear safety goes to lock the stuff up at the source. That is clearly the right priority. Other programs are devoted to blending down the highly enriched uranium to a diluted product unsuitable for weapons but good as reactor fuel. The Nuclear Threat Initiative, financed by Ted Turner and led by Nunn, is studying ways to double the rate of this diluting process.
Still, after 10 years of American subsidies, only 41 percent of Russia`s weapon-usable material has been secured, according to the United States Department of Energy. Russian officials said they can`t even be sure how much exists, in part because the managers of nuclear facilities, like everyone else in the Soviet industrial complex, learned to cook their books. So the barn door is still pretty seriously ajar. We don`t know whether any horses have gotten out.
And it is not the only barn. William C. Potter, director of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and an expert in nuclear security in the former Soviet states, said the American focus on Russia has neglected other locations that could be tempting targets for a terrorist seeking bomb-making material. There is, for example, a bomb`s worth of weapons-grade uranium at a site in Belarus, a country with an erratic president and an anti-American orientation. There is enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb or two in Kharkiv, in Ukraine. Outside of Belgrade, in a research reactor at Vinca, sits sufficient material for a bomb -- and there it sat while NATO was bombarding the area.
``We need to avoid the notion that because the most material is in Russia, that`s where we should direct all of our effort,`` Potter said. ``It`s like assuming the bank robber will target Fort Knox because that`s where the most gold is. The bank robber goes where the gold is most accessible.``
Weapons of Mass Disruption
The first and, so far, only consummated act of nuclear terrorism took place in Moscow in 1995, and it was scarcely memorable. Chechen rebels obtained a canister of cesium, possibly from a hospital they had commandeered a few months before. They hid it in a Moscow park famed for its weekend flea market and called the press. No one was hurt. Authorities treated the incident discreetly, and a surge of panic quickly passed.
The story came up in virtually every conversation I had in Russia about nuclear terror, usually to illustrate that even without splitting atoms and making mushroom clouds a terrorist could use radioactivity – and the fear of it -- as a potent weapon.
The idea that you could make a fantastic weapon out of radioactive material without actually producing a nuclear bang has been around since the infancy of nuclear weaponry. During World War II, American scientists in the Manhattan Project worried that the Germans would rain radioactive material on our troops storming the beaches on D-Day. Robert S. Norris, the biographer of the Manhattan Project director, Gen. Leslie R. Groves, told me that the United States took this threat seriously enough to outfit some of the D-Day soldiers with Geiger counters.
No country today includes radiological weapons in its armories. But radiation`s limitations as a military tool -- its tendency to drift afield with unplanned consequences, its long-term rather than short-term lethality -- would not necessarily count against it in the mind of a terrorist. If your aim is to instill fear, radiation is anthrax-plus. And unlike the fabrication of a nuclear explosive, this is terror within the means of a soloist.
That is why, if you polled the universe of people paid to worry about weapons of mass destruction (W.M.D., in the jargon), you would find a general agreement that this is probably the first thing we`ll see. ``If there is a W.M.D. attack in the next year, it`s likely to be a radiological attack,`` said Rose Gottemoeller, who handled Russian nuclear safety in the Clinton administration and now follows the subject for the Carnegie Endowment. The radioactive heart of a dirty bomb could be spent fuel from a nuclear reactor or isotopes separated out in the process of refining nuclear fuel. These materials are many times more abundant and much, much less protected than the high-grade stuff suitable for bombs. Since Sept.11, Russian officials have begun lobbying hard to expand the program of American aid to include protection of these lower-grade materials, and the Bush administration has earmarked a few million dollars to study the problem. But the fact is that radioactive material suitable for terrorist attacks is so widely available that there is little hope of controlling it all.
The guts of a dirty bomb could be cobalt-60, which is readily available in hospitals for use in radiation therapy and in food processing to kill the bacteria in fruits and vegetables. It could be cesium-137, commonly used in medical gauges and radiotherapy machines. It could be americium, an isotope that behaves a lot like plutonium and is used in smoke detectors and in oil prospecting. It could be plutonium, which exists in many research laboratories in America. If you trust the security of those American labs, pause and reflect that the investigation into the great anthrax scare seems to be focused on disaffected American scientists.
Back in 1974, Theodore Taylor and Mason Willrich, in a book on the dangers of nuclear theft, examined things a terrorist might do if he got his hands on 100 grams of plutonium -- a thimble size amount. They calculated that a killer who dissolved it, made an aerosol and introduced it into the ventilation system of an office building could deliver a lethal dose to the entire floor area of a large skyscraper. But plutonium dispersed outdoors in the open air, they estimated, would be far less effective. It would blow away in a gentle wind.
The Federation of American Scientists recently mapped out for a Congressional hearing the consequences of various homemade dirty bombs detonated in New York or Washington. For example, a bomb made with a single footlong pencil of cobalt from a food irradiation plant and just 10 pounds of TNT and detonated at Union Square in a light wind would send a plume of radiation drifting across three states. Much of Manhattan would be as contaminated as the permanently closed area around the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Anyone living in Manhattan would have at least a 1-in-100 chance of dying from cancer caused by the radiation. An area reaching deep into the Hudson Valley would, under current Environmental Protection Agency standards, have to be decontaminated or destroyed.
Frank von Hippel, the Princeton physicist, has reviewed the data, and he pointed out that this is a bit less alarming than it sounds. ``Your probability of dying of cancer in your lifetime is already about 20 percent,`` he said. ``This would increase it to 20.1 percent. Would you abandon a city for that? I doubt it.``
Indeed, some large portion of our fear of radiation is irrational. And yet the fact that it`s all in your mind is little consolation if it`s also in the minds of a large, panicky population. If the actual effect of a radiation bomb is that people clog the bridges out of town, swarm the hospitals and refuse to return to live and work in a contaminated place, then the impact is a good deal more than psychological. To this day, there is bitter debate about the actual health toll from the Chernobyl nuclear accident. There are researchers who claim that the people who evacuated are actually in worse health over all from the trauma of relocation, than those who stayed put and marinated in the residual radiation. But the fact is, large swaths of developed land around the Chernobyl site still lie abandoned, much of it bulldozed down to the subsoil. The Hart Senate Office Building was closed for three months by what was, in hindsight, our society`s inclination to err on the side of alarm.
There are measures the government can take to diminish the dangers of a radiological weapon, and many of them are getting more serious consideration. The Bush administration has taken a lively new interest in radiation-detection devices that might catch dirty-bomb materials in transit. A White House official told me the administration`s judgment is that protecting the raw materials of radiological terror is worth doing, but not at the expense of more catastrophic threats.
``It`s all over,`` he said. ``It`s not a winning proposition to say you can just lock all that up. And then, a bomb is pretty darn easy to make. You don`t have to be a rocket scientist to figure about fertilizer and diesel fuel.`` A big fertilizer bomb of the type Timothy McVeigh used to kill 168 people in Oklahoma City, spiced with a dose of cobalt or cesium, would not tax the skills of a determined terrorist.
``It`s likely to happen, I think, in our lifetime,`` the official said.
``And it`ll be like Oklahoma City plus the Hart Office Building. Which is real bad, but it ain`t the World Trade Center.``
The Peril of Power Plants Every eight years or so the security guards at each of the country`s 103 nuclear power stations and at national weapons labs can expect to be attacked by federal agents armed with laser-tag rifles. These mock terror exercises are played according to elaborate rules, called the ``design basis threat,`` that in the view of skeptics favor the defense. The attack teams can include no more than three commandos. The largest vehicle they are permitted is an S.U.V. They are allowed to have an accomplice inside the plant, but only one. They are not allowed to improvise. (The mock assailants at one Department of Energy lab were ruled out of order because they commandeered a wheelbarrow to cart off a load of dummy plutonium.) The mock attacks are actually announced in advance. Even playing by these rules, the attackers manage with some regularity to penetrate to the heart of a nuclear plant and damage the core. Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and something of a scourge of the nuclear power industry, has recently identified a number of shortcomings in the safeguards, including, apparently, lax standards for clearing workers hired at power plants.
One of the most glaring lapses, which nuclear regulators concede and have promised to fix, is that the design basis threat does not contemplate the possibility of a hijacker commandeering an airplane and diving it into a reactor. In fact, the protections currently in place don`t consider the possibility that the terrorist might be willing, even eager, to die in the act. The government assumes the culprits would be caught while trying to get away.
A nuclear power plant is essentially a great inferno of decaying radioactive material, kept under control by coolant. Turning this device into a terrorist weapon would require cutting off the coolant so the atomic furnace rages out of control and, equally important, getting the radioactive matter to disperse by an explosion or fire. (At Three Mile Island, the coolant was cut off and the reactor core melted down, generating vast quantities of radiation. But the thick walls of the containment building kept the contaminant from being released, so no one died.)
One way to accomplish both goals might be to fly a large jetliner into the fortified building that holds the reactor. Some experts say a jet engine would stand a good chance of bursting the containment vessel, and the sheer force of the crash might disable the cooling system -- rupturing the pipes and cutting off electricity that pumps the water through the core. Before nearby residents had begun to evacuate, you could have a meltdown that would spew a volcano of radioactive isotopes into the air, causing fatal radiation sickness for those exposed to high doses and raising lifetime cancer rates for miles around.
This sort of attack is not as easy, by a long shot, as hitting the World Trade Center. The reactor is a small, low-lying target, often nestled near the conspicuous cooling towers, which could be destroyed without great harm. The reactor is encased in reinforced concrete several feet thick, probably enough, the industry contends, to withstand a crash. The pilot would have to be quite a marksman, and somewhat lucky. A high wind would disperse the fumes before they did great damage.
Invading a plant to produce a meltdown, even given the record of those mock attacks, would be more complicated, because law enforcement from many miles around would be on the place quickly, and because breaching the containment vessel is harder from within. Either invaders or a kamikaze attacker could instead target the more poorly protected cooling ponds, where used plutonium sits, encased in great rods of zirconium alloy. This kind of sabotage would take longer to generate radiation and would be far less lethal.
Discussion of this kind of potential radiological terrorism is colored by passionate disagreements over nuclear power itself. Thus the nuclear industry and its rather tame regulators sometimes sound dismissive about the vulnerability of the plants (although less so since Sept.11), while those who regard nuclear power as inherently evil tend to overstate the risks. It is hard to sort fact from fear-mongering.
Nuclear regulators and the industry grumpily concede that Sept. 11 requires a new estimate of their defenses, and under prodding from Congress they are redrafting the so-called design basis threat, the one plants are required to defend against. A few members of Congress have proposed installing ground-to-air missiles at nuclear plants, which most experts think is a recipe for a disastrous mishap.
``Probably the only way to protect against someone flying an aircraft into a nuclear power plant,`` said Steve Fetter of the University of Maryland, ``is to keep hijackers out of cockpits.``
Being Afraid For those who were absorbed by the subject of nuclear terror before it became fashionable, the months since the terror attacks have been, paradoxically, a time of vindication. President Bush, whose first budget cut $100 million from the programs to protect Russian weapons and material (never a popular program among conservative Republicans), has become a convert. The administration has made nuclear terror a priority, and it is getting plenty of goading to keep it one.
You can argue with their priorities and their budgets, but it`s hard to accuse anyone of indifference. And resistance -- from scientists who don`t want security measures to impede their access to nuclear research materials, from generals and counterintelligence officials uneasy about having their bunkers inspected, from nuclear regulators who worry about the cost of nuclear power, from conservatives who don`t want to subsidize the Russians to do much of anything -- has become harder to sustain. Intelligence gathering on nuclear material has been abysmal, but it is now being upgraded; it is a hot topic at meetings between American and foreign intelligence services, and we can expect more numerous and more sophisticated sting operations aimed at disrupting the black market for nuclear materials. Putin, too, has taken notice. Just before leaving to meet Bush in Crawford, Tex., in November, he summoned the head of the atomic energy ministry to the Kremlin on a Saturday to discuss nuclear security. The subject is now on the regular agenda when Bush and Putin talk.
These efforts can reduce the danger but they cannot neutralize the fear, particularly after we have been so vividly reminded of the hostility some of the world feels for us, and of our vulnerability.
Fear is personal
My own -- in part, because it`s the one I grew up with, the one that made me shiver through the Cuban missile crisis and ``On the Beach`` -- is the horrible magic of nuclear fission. A dirty bomb or an assault on a nuclear power station, ghastly as that would be, feels to me within the range of what we have survived. As the White House official I spoke with said, it`s basically Oklahoma City plus the Hart Office Building. A nuclear explosion is in a different realm of fears and would test the country in ways we can scarcely imagine.
As I neared the end of this assignment, I asked Matthew McKinzie, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, to run a computer model of a one-kiloton nuclear explosion in Times Square, half a block from my office, on a nice spring workday. By the standards of serious nuclear weaponry, one kiloton is a junk bomb, hardly worthy of respect, a fifteenth the power of the bomb over Hiroshima.
A couple of days later he e-mailed me the results, which I combined with estimates of office workers and tourist traffic in the area. The blast and searing heat would gut buildings for a block in every direction, incinerating pedestrians and crushing people at their desks. Let`s say 20,000 dead in a matter of seconds. Beyond this, to a distance of more than a quarter mile, anyone directly exposed to the fireball would die a gruesome death from radiation sickness within a day -- anyone, that is, who survived the third-degree burns. This larger circle would be populated by about a quarter million people on a workday. Half a mile from the explosion, up at Rockefeller Center and down at Macy`s, unshielded onlookers would expect a slower death from radiation. A mushroom cloud of irradiated debris would blossom more than two miles into the air, and then, 40 minutes later, highly lethal fallout would begin drifting back to earth, showering injured survivors and dooming rescue workers. The poison would ride for 5 or 10 miles on the prevailing winds, deep into the Bronx or Queens or New Jersey.
A terrorist who pulls off even such a small-bore nuclear explosion will take us to a whole different territory of dread from Sept. 11. It is the event that preoccupies those who think about this for a living, a category I seem to have joined.
``I think they`re going to try,`` said the physicist David Albright. ``I`m an optimist at heart. I think we can catch them in time. If one goes off, I think we will survive. But we won`t be the same. It will affect us in a fundamental way. And not for the better.`` Bill Keller is a Times columnist and a senior writer for the magazine.
Your opinion (comments to the article)?
Corvin, 14.12.2004 5:25:29
Макс, 22.02.2005 20:52:58
to Cotvin: до 11 сентября атаку пассажирского самолета тоже считали настолько маловероятной, почти равной 0... не надо так писать!... Ни в одном из предложений этого текста нет бредовых идей!
Legat, 22.07.2005 9:40:45
Лично я много видел пособий по изготовлению атомной бомбы например http://tarranova.lib.ru/authors/k/karp/karp01.txt так что надо призадуматься...
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