ASYMMETRICAL NUCLEAR WEAPONS: WHAT TO EXPECT
Por Manuel Cereijo
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 tens 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 confined 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.
The most accessible nuclear device for any terrorist would be a radiological dispersion bomb. This so-called 'dirty bomb' would consist of waste by-products from nuclear reactors wrapped in conventional explosives, which upon detonation would spew deadly radioactive particles into the environment.
This is an expedient weapon, in that radioactive waste material is relatively easy to obtain. Radioactive waste is widely found throughout the world, and in general is not as well guarded as actual nuclear weapons. In the United States, radioactive waste is located at more than 70 commercial nuclear power sites in 31 states. Enormous quantities also exist overseas - in Europe and Japan in particular. Tons of wastes are transported long distances, including between continents (Japan to Europe and back).
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.
In Russia, security for nuclear waste is especially poor, and the potential for diversion and actual use by Islamic radicals has been shown to be very real indeed. In 1996, Islamic rebels from the break-away province of Chechnya planted, but did not detonate, such a device in Moscow's Izmailovo park to demonstrate Russia's vulnerability.
This dirty bomb consisted of a deadly brew of dynamite and one of the highly radioactive by-products of nuclear fission - Cesium 137. Extreme versions of such gamma-ray emitting bombs, such as a dynamite-laden casket of spent fuel from a nuclear power plant, would not kill quite as many people as died on Sept. 11. worst-case calculation for an explosion in downtown Manhattan during noontime: more than 2,000 deaths and many thousands more suffering from radiation poisoning.
Treatment of those exposed would be greatly hampered by inadequate medical facilities and training. The United States has only a single hospital emergency room dedicated to treating patients exposed to radiation hazards, at Oak Ridge, Tenn. A credible threat to explode such a bomb in a U.S. city could have a powerful impact on the conduct of U.S. foreign and military policy, and could possibly have a paralyzing effect. Not only would the potential loss of life be considerable, but also the prospect of mass evacuation of dense urban centers would loom large in the minds of policy-makers.
The threat from radiological dispersion dims in comparison to the possibility that terrorists could build or obtain an actual atomic bomb. An explosion of even low yield could kill hundreds of thousands of people. A relatively small bomb, say 15-kilotons, detonated in Manhattan could immediately kill upwards of 100,000 inhabitants, followed by a comparable number of deaths in the lingering aftermath. Fortunately, bomb-grade nuclear fissile material (highly enriched uranium or plutonium) is relatively heavily guarded in most, if not all, nuclear weapon states.
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).
Obviously, intelligence that helps localize the bomb is the main key to success. Just as obviously, intelligence of such quality is seldom available - as proven on Sept. 11. Such a search could be truly looking for a needle in a haystack, as detection normally would succeed only if the detectors come within a few feet or so of the hidden bomb. Disabling a bomb is easy by comparison.
A radiological bomb might be surrounded by a tent enclosure several tens of feet in height and width, then filled with a special foam to contain the deadly radioactive material (such as Cesium 137) if the bomb explodes during further defusing attempts.
For a nuclear device there are available a set of options for disabling the weapon, including using explosives to wreck the bomb's wiring to prevent the triggering of the nuclear detonators. Because of the difficulty inherent in finding a nuclear weapon once it entered the country, near-term U.S. response efforts would be best focused on prevention and intervention to secure possible sources of nuclear terrorism.
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.