Posts Tagged ‘nuclear terrorism’

Obama’s threat reduction priorities

January 16, 2009

Others should embrace them in their own self-interests

I sincerely believe that because of its utterly devastating and game-changing implications, nuclear terrorism is one of the greatest threats the world faces. Even a crude nuclear weapon detonated in Mumbai, London, Tokyo or Los Angeles will cause the kind of destruction and havoc that would be every citizen’s worst nightmare. Such an event will significantly change the political and social landscape of a country for a long time to come, and probably for the worse. That’s all everybody would talk about. In case of nuclear terrorism, the adage about us having to succeed every single time while them having to succeed just once rings resoundingly true.

A recent Nature article emphasizes the steps that President-elect (for only 5 more days) Obama should take to keep nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. Political leaders all over the world especially in sensitive countries should join him in this endeavor, because their cities might be the first casualties of nuclear terrorism. According to the article, something like only 0.2% of US defence spending is devoted to practical non-proliferation, an amount that has remained virtually unchanged for a decade. The new President’s chief science advisor John Holdren has worked on these issues, having already alerted the non-proliferation community to them back in 2002.

What needs to be paid very close attention to is highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and not plutonium. Building a plutonium implosion weapon involves many intricate steps and would likely be beyond the reach of a terrorist outfit. Plutonium is a hideous element that is extremely difficult to work with. The explosives arrangement around it needs to be machined to the finest dimensions in order to work as expected. By contrast, simple firing mechanisms can be used to detonate a uranium bomb (although I don’t share the article’s predilection for calling it “child’s play”). One of the topics of discussion between Pakistani scientists and Osama Bin Laden in August 2001 apparently involved such firing mechanisms. As the article correctly notes, even a uranium weapon fizzle that delivers 1-5 kT in a place like Manhattan would be devastating.

Given this scenario, it is more than disconcerting that some 272 HEU reactors in 56 countries remain unsecured. Feedstock balances for many of these reactors are not meticulously accounted for. Some uranium can even be scraped from the insides of centrifuges or gaseous diffusion tubes and declared as wasted or not produced. Quiet and gradual extraction of tiny amounts could lead to the accumulation of tens of kilograms, a quantity sufficient for a crude explosive device.

Clearly the focus of the new administration should be to try to secure such reactors in hot spots; in Pakistan, Iran and the former Soviet Union among other countries. Leaders all over the world should join in the effort; to provide secure technology, sensors, anti-terrorist safeguards. They should make sure their own reactors are sufficiently guarded. Fortunately, one of the foremost policy actions that Barack Obama was involved in as a Senator was non-proliferation. He worked with Senator Richard Lugar to continue securing nuclear material from the former Soviet Union. Non-proliferation was always one of Senator Obama’s special concerns. Let’s hope it stays that way and gets bolstered by international support.

Advertisements

Nuclear terrorism’s unheeded assumptions?

November 4, 2007

Nuclear terrorism forms an important part of the armamentarium of one of the Bush administration’s favourite pastimes- threat inflation. While it is true that the potential damage that terrorists could cause with even a 1 kT nuclear weapon is tremendous (Times Square NYC, noon on a weekday), there are many very realistic obstacles they need to overcome before they can acquire, process, build, transport and use any kind of a nuclear weapon.

The more realistic fear that governments and the public have is about dirty bombs, explosives packaged together with low-tech dispersive radioactive material that would largely circumvent the need to achieve the myriad steps needed to be in charge of a bonafide atomic device.

Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley challenges two assumptions made by proponents of a nuclear terrorist attack scenario: access to knowledge and the existence of a nuclear black market (exemplified by black market czar Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan). Gormley correctly tackles the myth of easy access to nuclear material and knowledge and identifies the slip between the cup and the lip- from knowledge to working product.

She also questions the ease of facilitation of trade in the nuclear black market and doubts the existence of a dedicated clientele, an essential feature of any black market. The clientele should also have the understanding and sophistication to purchase and process nuclear material (In the early days of Al Qaeda, Bin Laden was had when someone sold him mercuric oxide as yellowcake).

Lastly, she questions the nature of materials that have been implicated in nuclear smuggling until now, most of which included depleted uranium and isotopes like Osmium 167, too ineffectual in a dirty bomb, let alone a weapon.

But I think she is missing out on three other important isotopes which are widespread products of research reactors, large scale reactors as well as medical research reactors- Iodine 131, Cesium 137 and Strontium 90. Out of these, Iodine 131 can be absorbed by the thyroid gland and leads to thyroid cancer, but its effects can be thwarted rather easily by ingesting tablets made of normal non-radioactive iodine, provided such tablets are easily available (the slow dissemination of these tablets was partly responsible for the large number of deaths from Chernobyl). Cs 137 and Sr 90 pose more serious problems, and I would think that more than anything else they would be choice materials for a dirty bomb. Both isotopes seem to strike the golden mean for radioactive lethality, possessing half-lives of 30 years and 28 years respectively; long enough to compare to a human life span, and short enough to be intensely radioactive. Moreoever, both elements chemically resemble two key elements in the human body. Cs 137 behaves somewhat like potassium and distributes throughout body fluids and compartments, whereas Sr 90 resembles calcium and deposits in bones, greatly increasing the risk of bone cancer. Both elements if ingested in reasonable amounts will pose almost irreparable risk and cause permanent damage.

I certainly don’t think one should be immediately paranoid about these isotopes, but it is clear that if they wanted to, terrorists could steal them from multiple sources. I would think that any perceived scenario involving terrorists and dirty bombs should include discussion of these three isotopes, which because of their ease of access and purity are in some ways much more lethal than uranium or plutonium.