- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

NEW YORK Terrorists may not be able to make a functional atomic bomb, but they can acquire enough radioactive material to kill civilians and create panic with hybrid weapons, the United Nations' top nuclear regulatory body warned yesterday.

These so-called "dirty bombs" are made by spiking a conventional explosive with low-level radioactive material obtained from the black market or even stolen from hospitals, dumps or factories. These weapons don't pack the punch of a nuclear weapon, but the psychological toll and contamination they wreak would be considerable, said officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"The willingness of terrorists to commit suicide to achieve their evil aims makes the nuclear-terrorism threat far more likely than it was before September 11," Mohammed El-Baradei, director-general of IAEA, told an international group of nuclear analysts yesterday in Vienna, Austria.

The U.N. agency is seeking an additional $30 million to $50 million annually to expand its counterterrorism programs.

The IAEA is the nuclear watchdog agency charged with regulating the safety and security of nuclear power plants and other nonmilitary atomic sites. It has 132 members, 2,200 employees and an annual budget of $330 million.

Nuclear power plants vary in quality around the world, the agency said, but most are robust enough to withstand natural disaster and especially in the industrialized world acts of sabotage or terrorism.

"Now we are seeing terrorists that are not afraid to lose their own lives," said Gustavo R. Zlauvinen, the IAEA representative in New York, who added that it would be difficult to protect against attack by an airplane, as occurred in the September 11 strikes in New York and Washington.

Hundreds of specialists now are convening in Vienna for a weeklong seminar on the threat of nuclear terrorism.

In a world filled with uncountable and often unpoliced radiation devices, IAEA officials warn that terrorists have a variety of options for obtaining radioactive material.

Radioactive material can be found in hospital X-ray machines; it also is used in cancer treatment.

Commercial food-processing plants use radiation to kill bacteria before canning or freezing.

Used fuel rods and nuclear waste are sitting in dumps that may not be guarded scrupulously.

In addition, an unknown amount of research and military equipment is thought to be floating around "orphaned" by the collapse of the Soviet Union. These sites are not under international regulatory control.

"Now we have to face a new threat. There is no limit to the intent [of some] groups to use any type of tool, machine or technology to commit horrific acts and to bring terror, destruction and death," Mr. Zlauvinen told reporters yesterday.

To illustrate the havoc a dirty bomb can wreak, IAEA officials pointed to Goiania, the Brazilian city that in 1987 was contaminated by thieves who inadvertently stole a 20-gram capsule of highly radioactive cesium-137.

The curious material was cut up and passed around. In all, four persons died, 85 houses had to be destroyed and more than 125,000 drums of contaminated soil, clothing and other effects had to be carted away.

Specialists warn that the dirty bomb is the most likely nuclear terrorism scenario. They say it is nearly impossible for nongovernmental actors to get their hands on the estimated 17 pounds of plutonium or 60 pounds of enriched uranium necessary to build such a weapon.

Even if they did, the precise calibration that goes into making the material detonate properly is beyond all but the most sophisticated laboratories.

However, specialists allowed that stealing a weapon or its components is possible, especially in unstable regimes.

Mr. Zlauvinen yesterday refused to comment on reports that Pakistan, which tested its own nuclear devices three years ago, might be a source of hardware or weapons for terrorist groups.

However, he did note that Pakistan had not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and was not a member of the IAEA. He said that the agency had no advisory or regulatory role in Pakistan, except to inspect a few nuclear power plants built with Canadian assistance.


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide