The Truth About The Coming Dirty Bomb (Daniel 8:4)
Terrorism and nuclear security experts are increasingly concerned about the possibility of radicals launching a nuclear attack.
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Under a wintry sun in January 2010, a group of young people vaulted a sagging chain link fence in the Belgian countryside and walked toward a group of low, domed buildings, like a scout troop on an outing.
But they were the Bombspotters: peace activists whose goal was to get into hardened shelters storing some of the last Cold War nuclear weapons in Europe. They wanted to highlight the insecurity of the deadliest weapons on Earth.
“In last couple of years we’ve seen terrorists who are as motivated by a nihilist ideology as Al Qaeda, who seem to be more capable, hold more territory and have more financial resources, people and expertise than Al Qaeda ever had,” says William Tobey of the Harvard Kennedy School, a former senior U.S. official on nuclear policy.
“If you look at the equation for measuring risk of nuclear terrorism, it’s equal to terrorist capabilities times motivation, minus efforts to counter them,” he adds.
Tobey, who co-wrote a report titled Preventing Nuclear Terrorism, released earlier this month by Harvard’s Belfer Center, said the equation is now tipping to the dark side.
Although dozens of countries have improved nuclear security since 2010, says the Washington-based monitoring group the Nuclear Threat Initiative serious problems remain. They include physical protection, control and accounting of nuclear material, preventing insider threats, security during transport, response capabilities and cybersecurity of nuclear facilities.
Furthermore, it says, there is also a trend toward increasing stockpiles of weapons-usable nuclear materials in countries including Japan, Pakistan and the Netherlands. And the global system for securing dangerous radiological materials has “significant gaps.”
The weaknesses raise the spectre of four kinds of nuclear terrorism:
A hijacked nuclear weapon
The most apocalyptic scenario is also the most unlikely.
The possibility of a terrorist gang making off with a nuclear weapon is limited but not zero, says Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of International Study in Monterey, Calif.
Belgium — the site of a recent Daesh attack — is one of five countries that harbour some of the 180 tactical nuclear weapons stationed in and near Europe by the United States during the Cold War. The others are the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey.
In Belgium, says Lewis, a non-proliferation expert, “all the relevant security officials say that the security is terrible.”
Since the Bombspotters’ forays into the Kleine Brogel airbase, more sinister developments have come to light.
Recently, investigators of last November’s attack by Daesh (also known as ISIS or ISIL) on Paris found surveillance footage of a senior Belgian nuclear official in a suspect’s apartment — a warning that the group may have nuclear ambitions.
The solution to the insecurity of Belgium-based nuclear weapons, Lewis argues, is for Washington to consolidate the European nuclear bombs at two U.S. airbases where they would be better secured. “They could do it at the stroke of a pen. But they don’t want to admit there is a problem, because of the political cost.”
A homegrown nuke
Less than eight kilograms of plutonium or 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium are sufficient to make a nuclear bomb, says the Washington-based Nuclear Control Institute. “But these materials circulate in civilian nuclear commerce by the ton.”
With extremism as well as worldwide trafficking networks increasing, former Soviet nuclear facilities vulnerable to corruption, and inadequate protection of many Western facilities, obtaining the material is feasible.
“The most stressful test of security would be an outside group aided by an insider,” says Tobey. “Even effective screening (of nuclear employees) may not work because radicalization can happen quite quickly.”
Experts say it would take less than a year for terrorists to engineer a Hiroshima-style bomb — which killed about 140,000 people.
A dirty bomb
Unlike homemade weapons built from a nuclear bomb blueprint, the “dirty bomb” would take far less risk, money, effort and expertise.
“The source of the material isn’t rare or isolated,” says Joe Cirincione, the president of the Washington-based Ploughshares Fund. “It’s factories, companies making radio isotopes for medical uses and others. Most of the material is as well-guarded as library books.”
A dirty bomb works by exploding relatively small amounts of radioactive substances over limited areas: “50 grams of cesium in a (five-kilogram) satchel of dynamite could irradiate tens of square blocks of a city,” Cirincione says.
The radioactive cloud would send nuclear fallout over roads and buildings, where it would cling. Inhaling the stuff would increase the risk of cancer.
“It’s like contaminating a building with asbestos,” he adds. “People wouldn’t die immediately, but the danger is there.” Whole areas of cities would be shut down, destroying the economy as well as public health.
Attacking a nuclear plant
A massive radioactivity release from a power plant could contaminate hundreds of thousands of square kilometres, including food and water supplies for entire countries. The Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters are still unresolved, and in Russia an accidental explosion of nuclear waste in 1957 at the Mayak plant in southern Siberia made it the world’s most highly contaminated area.
Worldwide, there are 444 nuclear power plants operating in 30 countries and 243 smaller nuclear reactors, says Allison Macfarlane, former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in The Conversation.
Protesters have broken into power plants in Sweden and France. In Belgium, two employees of the Doel nuclear power station left to fight in Syria. In 2014, an unknown saboteur tampered with a turbine’s lubricant, causing the Belgian plant to shut down for five months.
“Nuclear reactors are built to withstand attack,” says Cirincione. But they could be severely damaged by a 9/11-style jumbo jet crash, or blasts from a series of truck bombs. Cyber attacks are also a worrying possibility, as shown by the 2010 Stuxnet attack on computers at Iran’s Nantaz nuclear facility, reportedly an American-Israeli operation.
Whatever the scenario, the first step toward preventing nuclear terrorism is acknowledging the problem.
“There’s a lot of denial about nuclear terrorism,” says Cirincione. “Because it has never happened people assume it never will. So many of us who are always warning about it seem like Cassandras. But Cassandra’s curse was not that she was wrong — it’s just that nobody believed her.”
Tons of non-weapons-grade nuclear material stored around the world
Countries, out of 57, that have eliminated weapons-usable material from their territory
Percentage of weapons-usable material that is defined as military, and not subject to international security guidelines
Amount earmarked by the U.S. for international nuclear security in 2016, a decline of $300 million since 2012
Estimated spending on a U.S. modernization plan for nuclear defences over the next 30 years
Sources: European Leadership Network, Harvard Project on Managing the Atom, Nuclear Threat Initiative, The New York Times