Of the countless scenarios of terrorist mayhem, none quickens the pulse quite like the menace of a nuclear bomb, and for good reason. A nuclear weapon embodies essentially everything a terrorist could hope for: the ability to kill at least thes of thousands of people at once, a fiery explosion that reverberates globally in images of death and destruction, and a lingering, lethal legacy, in the form of radioactive fallout.

Fortunately, most groups and terrorist nations are limited in their resources and lack the infrastructure to build a nuclear bomb. But, why build a bomb when there are far cheaper and simpler ways of waging nuclear terror?

There are two other possibilities that, for their comparative simplicity, would deliver much of the bang of a bomb.Flying a fully fueled jumbo jet into a nuclear reactor is one. The other is using radioactive nuclear materials to kill or sicken people or render tracts of land uninhabitable by, for example, scattering the materials with a conventional explosion.

Nuclear reactors are surrounded by a massive containment structure with concrete-and-steel walls more than a meter thick. These containments were designed to withstand earthquakes and extremely violent impacts, but not the sort a plunging jumbo jet would cause if fully loaded with fuel, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in Vienna, Austria.

In a 26 September release, the agency suggested that such an impact would not trigger a runaway nuclear reaction, because automatic safety systems would flood the reactor with water. A direct hit by a large, fueled aircraft might nevertheless breach the containment and damage the reactor, possibly causing a leak of radioactive steam and fallout.

The IAEA's assessment predicts that the worst damage would be cionfined within 10 Kms. of the plant. Even so, dangerous levels of radioactivity would likely persist for 10 to 15 years.

Radiological dispersion devices-the poor man's nuclear weapon-, or dirty bomb, are another possibility likely to attract increasing interest from terrorists. Scattering radiation without a nuclear explosion, they are a near-term terrorist threat. Several nations-including a few sponsors of terrorism-have dabbled in dispersion devices. In the 1980s, Iraq produced and tested conventional bombs filled with radioactive materials-apparently, spent fuel from its research reactors, according to a 1991 report by the CIA. Cuba, by the way, has two research reactors.

Spent fuel is the obvious choice for the radioactive material in a terrorist device. Many tens of thousands of tons of it lie scattered around the world, including small accumulations in Iraq, Iran, Algeria, Libya, Syria, Pakistan, North Korea, and Cuba.

A single, half-ton spent fuel assembly from a reactor contains more than enough radioactivity to put a transportation terminal or some other strategic location out of action for months, or years, if the radioactivity is well dispersed.

A state sponsor of terrorism would simply give the spent fuel or perhaps even an entire dispersion device to terrorist groups. We must be on the alert, and start thinking from the terrorist's perspective of maximizing the destruction.


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