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Terrorist attempts to win a nuclear weapon -- and what is that weapon anyway?

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The diversion of nuclear materials and the definition of what constitutes a "dirty bomb" in terrorist terms require two important definitions:

Under the US-USSR nuclear weapons preparation and operations scenarios, a "dirty bomb" was a fissile package (nuclear weapon) having an extra layer of Cobalt-60 isotope whose half-life was extraordinarily long. Sometimes that was buttressed with an additional Iodine isotope that had a short but intense half-life so that the near term and long term survival rates of the target region -- and it is the entire footprint of the downwind plume -- was compromised. (Of course, a surface or sub-surface burst of any fissile package has far more radioactive, 'dirty' output than an airburst due to the increased rate of contaminated soil drawn into the cloud.)

Under the modern terrorist scenario, a "dirty bomb" can be as simple as conventional explosives packed inside or adjacent to nuclear materials, i.e., there is no fissile package here, merely a ‘tainted’ conventional explosive. The primary value of this device is twofold: long term contamination via the included nuclear materials and simplicity in design, i.e., the learning curve to produce a device is vastly eased and shortened.

Under the terrorist scenario, a dirty bomb can be produced by delivering conventional explosives onto or into a reactor complex or its usually less well guarded spent fuels storage facility -- or even a research or hospital facility containing radioisotopes. For example, a conventional explosives attack against the spent fuels stored at the Hanford, Washington or Oak Ridge, Tennessee complexes would unleash much of the accumulated spent nuclear materials from fifty years of US weapons production.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Vienna added a fifth day Special Session on Combating Nuclear Terrorism (2 Nov 2001) to their Nuclear Safeguards symposium. Some comments from attendees and speakers:

A retired CIA psychologist with expertise in terrorism offered profiles based on interviews with numerous terrorists, "They have no ‘redline’ when it comes to casualties. The more the better, and suicide and death is an honor."

Another speaker picked up on this comment, noting that, "Most nuclear [reactor] safety is based on danger to the perpetrator. If they don't care about dying, it does not work. Truck bombs are much easier than planes, and they have a good record with truck bombs."

Speaking at IAEA Vienna on 29 October, 2001, Charles B. Curtis, President and COO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative noted:

"The worldwide system of security for nuclear materials is no stronger than the system of security at the weakest, worst-defended site, which in many cases amounts to no more than a poorly-paid, unarmed guard sitting inside a chain link fence. The theft of nuclear materials anywhere is a threat to everyone everywhere. This has been a difficult point to get across. One of the most important efforts we made when I was in the Department of Energy was convincing Members of our Congress that funds spent securing nuclear materials in Russia was not solely for the security of Russia; it was for our own national security as well. If terrorists want nuclear materials, and they do, they are going to go where it’s easiest to get them.

As the people in this room know, the theft of potential bomb material is not just a hypothetical worry, but an ongoing reality. This includes the attempted theft -- by a conspiracy of insiders -- of 18.5 kg of HEU from a weapons facility in the Urals. It includes nearly a kilogram of HEU in the form of fast reactor fuel pellets seized last year in the Republic of Georgia. It includes 600 grams of HEU found by police in Colombia in April. Authorities still do not know the source, but no Latin American nation has a facility that uses or is capable of producing such material. The IAEA illicit trafficking database has recorded more than 550 reported incidents of trafficking since 1993. The great majority do not involve weapons-usable material, but 16 cases have involved plutonium or enriched uranium. Sixteen cases is a disturbing number, but it also may not tell us what we really need to know: what percentage of the actual thefts do we uncover? Is it close to one hundred percent -- or closer to five or ten percent? We simply do not know. Nor can we ever know with absolute certainty. But we can considerably narrow the window of vulnerability by strengthening physical protection as we strengthen diversion safeguards."

Gordon Housworth



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