By Manuel Cereijo


Radiological dispersion devices-"the poor man's nuclear weapon"- are another possibility likely to attract increasing interest from terrorists. Scattering radiation without a nuclear explosion, they are "a near-term terrorist threat". So far, terrorists and criminals have used nuclear materials on at least two occasions. In 1995-Russian organized crime figures hid radioactive material in the office of a businessman, who eventually died from radiation sickness.

In November of that same year, Chechen guerrillas buried a 15-kg container of cesium, used in equipment for cancer radiation therapy, near the entrance of Izmailovo Park, a huge and popular recreation area in eastern Moscow. The container emitted a level of radiation about 200,000 times higher than the background level. Many persons were affected before it was found.

Several nations-including some characterized as 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 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

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, Cuba, Pakistan, and North Korea

Cuba, since 1988 has two experimental nuclear reactors in La Habana. Very low power. One is a 10 Watts. The other is referred to as zero Watts. They are used for nuclear medicine and research on nuclear biotechnology. But they do generate nuclear waste.

An attack that would succeed in releasing a plume of radioactive materials, particularly over a large city, would dwarf the consequences of the criminal September 11 attack. Tens of thousands of cancer deaths downwind of the plant.

A single, half-ton spent-fuel assembly from a reactor contains more than enough radioactivity to put any strategic location out of action for months, or years, if the radioactivity is well dispersed. It is not easy to steal and utilize such an assembly. Ordinarily, it would be cooled and shielded in a special pool. Outside of that pool, it would instantly deliver a lethal dose of radiation to anyone who got near it.

Thus, in a more likely terrorist scenario, a state sponsor of terrorism would simply give the antagonists the spent fuel or perhaps even an entire dispersion device. Alternatively, terrorists might attack a truck or train carrying a cask loaded with as many as 32 spent-fuel assemblies. These casks are the emerging standard technology for storing and transporting nuclear waste. In Germany, and some other countries, loaded casks are brought to central storage facilities. The casks are strong but not utterly impervious. They could be blown open with an antitank or similar weapon or with other shaped explosive charges.

Nonetheless, the possibility of diversion remains. Massive quantities of fissile material exist around the world. Sophisticated terrorists could fairly readily design and fabricate a workable atomic bomb once they manage to acquire the precious deadly ingredients (the Hiroshima bomb which used a simple gun-barrel design is the prime example).

Many extensive studies are long overdue. Meticulous security plans must be put into effect. We must think from the terrorist's perspective of maximizing the destruction.


Manuel Cereijo

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