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Thinking the unthinkable: Is nuclear terrorism next?
`All you'd need would be a graduate student specializing in physics' -
Ivan Safranchuk,Centre for Defence Information Olivia Ward EUROPEAN BUREAU
MOSCOW - Nuclear terrorism used to be the domain of thriller writers and science fiction buffs.
But thinking the unthinkable is now the stuff of everyday life, as a traumatized public wonders what may come next. If biological terror is here now, people reckon, will the ultimate threat, nuclear attack, happen tomorrow?
Anxiety is heightened by replays of testimony from Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a member of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, who was on trial for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa.
He told a New York district court that he arranged meetings with smugglers in Sudan in the 1990s, offering $1.5 million for weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear attack.
The revelations have sent American officials speeding to tighten security in U.S. nuclear facilities.
But in Russia and the former Soviet republics, where the past decade has seen an unsettling decline in nuclear security, there is more cause for alarm.
For years rumours have circulated of small "briefcase bombs" gone astray, and of loose nuclear material for sale on the black market.
There are allegations that bin Laden, the suspected mastermind in the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the U.S., paid millions of dollars to stockpile some of the portable weapons at a hideout near Kandahar in southern Afghanistan.
Russian and Western experts are skeptical.
But they are now taking hard looks at the possibility of nuclear terrorism originating in their midst. And some of their conclusions are far from reassuring.
"If you ask me if nuclear terrorism is possible, I think the short answer is yes," admits Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Centre for Defence Information's Moscow office.
"But if we're talking about using a sophisticated modern weapon, like those in the hands of the U.S. and Russian special forces, it's very unlikely."
In the mid-1990s, Gen. Alexander Lebed, then head of the Russian Security Council, said there were 84 missing "briefcase bombs" that could be strapped into backpacks and carried over short distances. They would be capable of killing some 100,000 people.
But the flamboyant military man, famous for terse and dramatic statements, never proved his case, and was later fired from then-president Boris Yeltsin's administration.
Alexei Yablokov, head of the Russian Centre for Environmental Policy and Yeltsin's former environmental adviser, did his own investigation, and concluded the rumoured bombs existed.
But, he said, "I had several meetings with the military authorities responsible for these weapons, and they assured me all were under strict control."
Proof that the weapons would not be viable for terrorists, Yablokov said, was that they were developed and stored under top-secret conditions by the KGB in the 1970s, but never deployed.
"Now, I don't think (workable) suitcase bombs exist in Russia, because each of them needs to have its fissile material replaced," Yablokov said, referring to the material that fuels an atomic reaction.
"A warhead needs replacement every five to 10 years. As these devices are quite old, it doesn't seem feasible that they could be used today."
Terrorists would also have to contend with the security codes, stored in Moscow, that would allow the weapons to be fired.
More likely, experts say, a terror network like Al Qaeda could acquire enough nuclear material to make a small but dirty bomb of its own.
"They could create a primitive nuclear device based not exactly on a chain reaction," said Safranchuk, "but an explosion of nuclear material. It's somewhere between an explosive device and a nuclear weapon."
That would kill people in a relatively small radius of a kilometre or more. But the most devastating effect would be widespread terror.
Scientists say it would be difficult for a terrorist to put together even a simple atom bomb, such as those first developed in the U.S. and Russian nuclear programs.
That would require large resources to hire top specialists and build a laboratory where a chain reaction could be developed.
But a "primitive device" such as the one described by Safranchuk, could be more easily achieved - especially with loose nuclear material gleaned from Russia, the former Soviet Union, or any of the dozens of unstable countries that have nuclear plants.
"All you'd need would be a graduate student specializing in physics," said Safranchuk.
As for materials, there have been numerous reports of enriched and unenriched uranium, and plutonium, smuggled out of Russia since 1991.
"There have been several thousand attempts to sell radioactive material to citizens," said Vladimir Slivyak of the environmental lobby group Nuclear Defence.
"Some of it was stolen from plants, some from research laboratories, even weapons-grade uranium."
And, he said, criminals are ready and waiting to help the terrorists - for a price.
"It's not a difficult job for a terrorist to find material. There's a nuclear mafia operating in eastern Europe that specializes in smuggling nuclear materials."
In the mid-1990s, German police intercepted several containers of deadly plutonium that were traced to Russia, and the government's own nuclear watchdog Gosatomnadzor complained of an alarming "lack of a state system for accounting and control of nuclear materials."
The result, it said, was no "effective state control of transportation, security and treatment of nuclear materials."
Environmentalists have petitioned the government for years for help in shoring up nuclear safety. But the plummeting economy, and low priority for environmental matters, has meant that little has been done.
Although nuclear weapons were removed from former Soviet republics in the late 1990s, lack of proper inventories, and lack of official interest, have boosted fears that tonnes of weapons grade materials are still sitting in Russia's former fiefdoms.
"I just came back from Kazakhstan, and can tell you it's a big problem there," Slivyak said.
"Once a year they catch people trying to sell off radioactive material and those are only the attempts we know about."
Carelessly guarded material is vulnerable to buyers for black market nuclear goods, ranging from warring ethnic groups to religious and political extremists.
According to a recent study by Alex Schmid of the United Nations Terrorism Branch in Vienna, more than 130 terrorist groups pose a nuclear, chemical or biological threat, and a number of those are capable of developing a nuclear-based weapon.
Among them is the Al Qaeda network.
Sales of nuclear materials by black marketeers are a distinct possibility, given the laxness of guarding nuclear materials in civilian plants in the former Soviet Union.
"There are plenty of security violations in nuclear power plants," said Sergei Kharitonov of the Centre for Human Rights and Ecology.
"Physical security is poor, especially checkpoints. When you enter and go out of the plants, they aren't well organized."
Kharitonov, a former nuclear technologist in the Leningradskaya nuclear plant near St. Petersburg, said drunkenness and drug abuse are also rife among the workers.
And with low wages, which were sometimes months in arrears during the 1990s, there was little incentive for guards to be honest or conscientious.
"I took big parcels through," he said. "Nobody checked."
After Kharitonov was fired for blowing the whistle on the sloppy plant practises, his pass to enter the complex wasn't revoked.
The run-down operating condition of the plants is also a danger that terrorists could exploit, experts say.
Even cutting power lines to the plants could set off a devastating Chernobyl-like explosion if emergency generators failed to start up.
Russian nuclear safety authorities deny the plants are unsafe. But anecdotal evidence shows that the likelihood of a thief or saboteur entering a Russian plant remains a frightening possibility. "The problem is that financing for our nuclear installations is only 5 to 10 per cent (of what is needed)," said energy co-ordinator Vladimir Tchouprov of Greenpeace's Moscow office. "In some places there are no fences."
But in the opinion of Russia's nuclear activists, the most dangerous exposure to nuclear terrorism is in the transfer of spent nuclear fuel through Russia for storage and reprocessing.
About 14,000 tonnes of high-level radioactive waste is currently stored in the country, and the only reprocessing plant, Mayak, in the Ural mountain region, has been condemned as a potential second Chernobyl.
The anti-nuclear activists are most disturbed about the import of a trainload of waste that is to set off from Bulgaria's Kozloduy nuclear plant for reprocessing next week. The atomic energy agency Minatom plans to bring in some 20,000 tonnes of spent fuel, a business they hope will be lucrative.
"Why we care so much is that a train is a very easy terror target," said Sliyak, whose group is urging the West to offer compensation for Russia to drop the contract.
"We have only one train that can carry spent fuel outside the country. If you have a well-trained surveillance team, you know exactly when it will leave and how it can be tracked."
Although Russia has had surprisingly few threats of nuclear terrorism - the most well-publicized one was from Chechen rebels in the 1990s - there have been documented cases of nuclear crime using stolen materials.
In 1994, a Moscow company director was killed by when a small radioactive device was implanted in his chair.
According to Moscow safety authorities, similar devices stolen from plants, hospitals and construction sites pose dangers.
"For years we've had no luck alerting the authorities to nuclear threats," said Tchouprov.
"Maybe now that they've seen how terrorists operate, they may change their minds. But something must be done quickly."
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), October 22, 2001
Nuclear weapons are not required for a nuclear attack. All that is reqired is a credible threat of a nuclear attack... in other words a BLUFF would do severe damage to the US economy.
Perception Management media control in the US had built up binLadens credibility to the point that he could now use a bluff of a nuclear threat as an actual attack on the US economy.
If tommorow binLaden issued threat such as "We have place 5 suitcase nukes in US cities. Hand over the terrrorist Bush within 7 days else we start detonations." ... the ensuing panic within all cities, with consumers, and investors on all markets would drive the US economy into a depression. It would be 7 days of hell.
Note that he can do this at any time without any of his people breaking cover, and without any physical action. What is worse ... binLaden could extend or call off the detonations ... without the US being able to prove that the suitcase nukes are not in place.
-- Mark Blaine (firstname.lastname@example.org), October 22, 2001.