The United States today finds itself at greater risk of a radiological
attack than at the height of the Cold War, according to government
officials and independent experts. Concerns that had emerged way
before the September 11 attacks have been exacerbated in recent
months, as U.S. officials worry that terrorist groups may have access
to radioactive materials that could be used to fabricate crude radiological
dispersion devices and rudimentary nuclear bombs.
But that is not the only reason for U.S. officials to fret. Of
more significant concern is the wide availability of “orphaned”
hardware and nuclear waste that conceivably could help a motivated
terrorist or domestic separatist put together a weapon deadly enough
to kill thousands of people. Orphaned is a term used within the
nuclear industry to describe equipment and fissile materials that
have been lost or stolen and are not inventoried anywhere. The former
Soviet republics are the most notable source of orphaned nukes.
An average of approximately 375 sources or devices of all kinds
are reported lost or stolen each year in this nation—which
amounts to about one per day.
Richard Meserve, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,
indicated that there are 103 licensed civilian nuclear reactors
in the United States. By contrast, there are roughly 150,000 licensees
for radioactive materials and 2 million devices containing radioactive
In October, two portable moisture-density gauges, containing sealed
sources of radioactive material, were reported wrested off the back
of a pickup truck at a work-site in Philadelphia.
Those gauges have not yet been found, said Neil Sheehan a spokesman
for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They have now become orphans.
“Orphans tend to find parents real fast,” said Michael
Levi, of the Nuclear Project, at the Federation of American Scientists,
in Washington, D.C. Indeed, he said, there is a lucrative international
market for nuclear equipment and radioactive material. Between 1993
and 2001, the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna, recorded
550 instances of trafficking of which about half involved radioactive
sources. IAEA said that the growth could be attributed to the increased
trafficking of highly enriched uranium. For example, in April 2000,
almost one kilogram of highly enriched uranium was seized from smugglers.
Levi said that U.S. officials need to anticipate how a terrorist
may carry out a radiological attack. “We tend to associate
terrorists with things that blow up,” he said. “The
prevailing view is that a radiological dispersion device (RDD) or
nuclear bomb will be the preferred method of delivery, but it’s
equally as likely that terrorists will buy radioactive waste and
manually disperse it in terminals, subways or other crowded places.”
Of immeasurable consequence, he added, is the psychological damage
that the explosion of an RDD or the detonation of a low-yield nuclear
weapon would inflict on the population.
The destructive powers of a successful detonation of a low-yield
nuclear device or an RDD would far surpass the death toll of the
September 11 terrorist attacks. The International Physicians for
the Prevention of Nuclear War in Cambridge, Mass., estimated that
an explosive nuclear device, with a 12-kiloton yield, surface-detonated
in downtown New York City during peak business hours, would result
in 60,065 immediate fatalities, with another 60,065 non-fatally
The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War
used a computer model known as COSYMA to simulate an explosion in
London of 35 kilograms of plutonium wrapped in conventional explosives.
COSYMA—Code System from Maria—is used for assessing
the off-site radiological and ecological consequences of accidental
atmospheric releases of radioactive material.
While the initial blast would cause minimal fatalities, the deadly
cloud of plutonium would lead to 2,000 to 10,000 deaths from fibrosis
and collapsing of the lungs and, ultimately, cancer.
“Given the public aversion to cancer risk and fears engendered
by the reputation of plutonium as a potent carcinogen, there are
likely to be ... evacuation and relocation plans, as well as the
imposition of food bans,” said a recent study by the International
Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. “In a city the
size and density of London, 300,000 to 1.5 million people would
need to be evacuated for 30 days or more from an area of 900-5,000
square-km in an arc about 100+ km from the release.
“Longer periods of evacuation and relocation might well be
required until the land was sufficiently decontaminated,”
said the study.
On the question of whether in fact an RDD or a nuclear device can
be built relatively easily, opinions diverge. According to data
from IAEA’s Illicit Trafficking Database and the U.S. Nuclear
Regulatory Commission, radioactive material could find its way into
the wrong hands.
“The Russians believe very strongly that a sophisticated
sub-state group, with 30-50 people using off-the-shelf equipment,
could actually create the bomb-grade materials from low-grade uranium
and make several bombs a year,” said Bruce Blair, president
of the Center for Defense Information, in Washington, D.C. “Centrifuges
critical to the process, for example, are available from medical
supply companies,” he said.
It’s no secret that there are many capable physicists around
the world who could build rudimentary nuclear weapons. For years,
physicists on track to be employed by U.S. nuclear weapons labs
bide their time by engaging in “Nth Country Experiments”
while their security clearances are being processed. “The
labs routinely conduct break-in assignments like ‘Nth Country’
where they have the new employees do their best to design a nuclear
weapon on the cheap,” said Blair. “The labs like it,
because sometimes the results are new and innovative.”
Overlooked in the discussion of emerging nuclear threats to the
United States are tactical weapons, said Allistair Millar, vice
president and director of the Fourth Freedom Forum, in Washington,
D.C., a research organization that explores the use of economic
incentives and sanctions to advance nuclear nonproliferation and
resolve international conflicts.
“Tactical nuclear weapons pose unique dangers as weapons
of terror,” he said. “Their often-smaller size increases
their portability and vulnerability to theft by non-nuclear states
and potential nuclear terrorists.”
The command-and-control features of tactical nuclear weapons are
of most concern, he said. They come with “pre-delegated launch
authorization, and often inadequate safeguards such as ineffective
permissive action links, [which] add to their potential unauthorized,
accidental or illicit use.
“We don’t have a system for accounting for tactical
nuclear weapons, which are not monitored or controlled by any existing
treaties or formal agreements,” said Millar.
Millar recently co-authored a report titled “Uncovered Nukes:
A fact sheet on tactical nuclear weapons.” In it, he noted
that the tactical nuclear weapons arsenal of the United States is
estimated at 1,670 warheads. These are stored mainly at facilities
in the U.S. mainland. About 150-200 are deployed across eight bases
Estimating the Russian arsenal is more complicated. There are conflicting
accounts and serious doubts about whether the Russians even know
how many tactical nuclear weapons they have. The most recent estimate
of the Russian arsenal is about 3,590 deployed weapons. When warheads
stored or slated for dismantlement are taken into account, these
estimates grow to as high as 15,000.
“This is a very serious problem, particularly as it relates
to Russia,” said Millar. There is no real evidence that demilitarization
of tactical nukes has taken place, because the Russian 12th Main
Directorate of the Ministry of Defense—responsible for nuclear
munitions deployment, testing, security—and Miniatom—which
oversees deactivation of nuclear weapons and stockpiles of plutonium—don’t
talk to each other and keep poor records, he said.
Blair noted that Russia is a “nuclear wasteland” of
decaying weaponry and unguarded radioactive matter. “Grandmothers
with pitchforks are guarding the radioactive dumps, the nuclear
installations,” he said. “The Russian attitude is that
these items do not deserve a great deal of security and that there
are more pressing issues to deal with.”
The best option for the United States, Blair said, is to “reduce
our exposure to these threats, thwart some of them, because we will
never be able to stop them all”.
As part of its evolving homeland defense mission, the Pentagon will
be one of the agencies involved in consequence management of a nuclear
or radiological attack on the civilian population, said Army Capt.
Robert Bennett, spokesman for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
“How do we talk to America about these types of problems?”
Bennett asked rhetorically. “Our Consequence Management Advisory
Team has been looking at ways to improve how we support the civilian
sector’s response to the detonation of an RDD or other nuclear
device,” he said. “We’ve held human behavior workshops
and have done modeling and simulation to determine blast impact
and radioactive fallout. And we’ve learned a heck of a lot
from the response to September 11.”
One of DTRA’s contributions is the Hazard Prediction Assessment
Capability, a computer simulation that can help predict the path
of a radioactive cloud. “Time-delayed affects come into play
here, and this particular program considers weather conditions along
with the radiological factors,” Bennett said. “It can
show you what will happen in 20 minutes, then 40 minutes and so
on. We provide this to first responders when they ask for it.”
This simulation also was configured to track asbestos particles
released from the ruins of the World Trade Center.
DTRA has held several radiological response exercises during the
past year. One was Olympic Response II in Salt Lake City, in the
spring of 2001. The scenario involved the dispersion of a deadly
radioactive waste cloud that had been detonated using conventional
explosives. DTRA assisted the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee in
understanding “the dangers and how best to deal with them,”
He pointed out that when DTRA participates in any homeland defense
activity, the agency reports to the local mayor or the state governor.
The real gumshoes in this business, meanwhile, are the members
of the Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST). Since 1975, NEST has
investigated 110 terrorist nuclear threats and developed responses
to approximately 30 of them. NEST draws talent from the nation’s
nuclear weapons labs and volunteers from the Department of Energy.
According to a study by the Brookings Institution, NEST maintains
a massive database that “contains everything publicly available
about making a nuclear weapon.” Some team members even design
and disarm homemade nuclear weapons using commercial off-the-shelf
If there is in fact a growing domestic nuclear threat, the Defense
Department is ill equipped to tackle it, Blair said. The current
defense budget priorities do not reflect homeland-security requirements,
he explained. “There’s tremendous misallocation. Security
and protection of the U.S. mainland has been under-funded and not
thought through. We are willing to spend $200 million for an F-22,
but we are not willing to put that dollar amount into smallpox vaccines
or other programs to defend our own people.”
Like Blair, Millar also questioned the spending priorities of the
“We have got to get [the tactical nuclear threat] out of
the Cold War context,” he said. “It costs something
on the order of $40,000 per hour to fly a B-2 from the U.S. to,
say, Afghanistan or Kosovo. “Has anyone thought about taking
that money and converting six unemployed Russian nuclear weapons
scientists, who would sell anything to put food on the table, to
help us out and do good things?”
Arms control experts, such as Blair and Millar, said they would
recommend that the Bush administration pursue new international
weapons treaties that go beyond the reduction of strategic nuclear
missiles and focus on tactical weapons. Programs such as the Nunn-Lugar—designed
to dismantle Soviet nuclear missiles and to keep Russian scientists
employed—should be fully funded, they said.
International initiatives to monitor illicit trafficking through
the International Atomic Energy Agency also need more financial
backing from the United States, Blair said. U.S. government regulators,
such as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, must be more aggressive
in monitoring the private sector’s use, transport and disposal
of radioactive materials.
Responding to a reporter’s question about whether al Qaeda
leaders may have acquired fissionable materials to make a nuclear
bomb, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, “There is intelligence
information floating around the world in various countries ... that
reflects the fact that the al Qaeda organization has an interest
in weapons of mass destruction—chemical, biological, radiation,
as well as nuclear.”