The threat of a nuclear terrorist attack once seemed remote. But since the 11 September attacks on the United States, government officials and experts worldwide are no longer taking the threat lightly. Recently, nuclear specialists met in Vienna to discuss the likelihood of such a strike and what measures should be taken to prevent it from happening.
Vienna, 7 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The notion of nuclear terrorism is not new. In 1972, a Southern Airlines commercial jet flying in the southeastern United States was hijacked by three men who threatened to fly it into the Oak Ridge federal nuclear installation in Tennessee.
Luckily, the threat remained just that. But the idea sounds chillingly familiar to the events of 11 September, when hijackers used three fuel-laden jetliners to attack and destroy New York's twin towers and part of the Pentagon, near Washington.
One nuclear expert, in fact, suggests that the fourth plane hijacked on 11 September may have been bound for a nuclear facility.
Gavin Cameron, of Sanford University in Manchester, England, says United Flight 93 -- which ultimately crashed in a wooded area in western Pennsylvania -- was flying so low that is seems unlikely the plane was headed for targets in the Washington area, as some have speculated. Cameron says the Flight 93 hijackers could have been targeting any of three nearby nuclear power plants, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, Hope Creek in New Jersey, and Peach Bottom in Maryland.
He also notes that Mohammad Atta -- the suspected ringleader of the 11 September attacks -- had his eye on U.S. nuclear facilities.
"Mohammad Atta apparently made inquiries about nuclear facilities in Tennessee. It was a range of targets that he was interested in -- chemical facilities were another possible target, but clearly they were thinking about this. Even this past week there have been allegations in the United States that six men were detained in the Midwest -- [then] inadvertently released -- and they had in their possession detailed plans about nuclear facilities in Florida. Again, it's not conclusive, and I absolutely take your point that it is speculative, but it is suggestive."
Cameron was just one of many nuclear experts gathered in Vienna last week at the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), set up by the United Nations to safeguard nuclear materials from being used for non-peaceful purposes. The experts were there to assess the threat posed by nuclear terrorism and to look for ways to prevent it.
The head of the IAEA, Mohamed El Baradei, said the "ruthlessness" of the 11 September attacks indicates that nuclear terrorism is a "prominent" threat.
"I think we have now come to realize -- or painfully realize, in fact -- that the risk of nuclear terrorism is a prominent one -- for two reasons, in my view. One, because we have come to realize that terrorists are ready to sacrifice life in the process of committing an act of terrorism. Again, the conventional wisdom in the past -- that people will not try to tamper with nuclear material or radioactive sources because they will expose themselves and cause a great deal of harm to themselves in that process -- well, that is no longer a valid assumption."
El Baradei also said the degree of sophistication shown in the 11 September attacks meant that terrorists are capable of acquiring the knowledge to launch an assault once deemed too technically daunting.
El Baradei said such "doomsday scenarios" -- of terrorists obtaining a nuclear device or acquiring the material to build a bomb -- were increasingly possible, but still extremely difficult.
"There are obviously a number of areas we need to look at, and obviously the first is the 'doomsday scenario' -- a terrorist acquiring a nuclear weapon. That obviously is the most horrifying scenario, but I think also in our judgment, it is the most unlikely scenario. Nuclear weapons are not just [a matter of] acquiring the material -- difficult as it may be in large quantities -- but it [also] requires a good deal of sophistication to develop [and] manufacture a nuclear weapon."
However, others at the Vienna conference said building a crude nuclear device would not be so difficult. Morten Bremer Maerli, a researcher at Oslo's Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, was one of many experts to note that the blueprints for building a homemade nuclear bomb are readily available on the Internet.
Maerli also took issue with IAEA assurances that it was unlikely terrorists could get adequate amounts of enriched uranium or plutonium to build such a device. The IAEA says those seeking to make a nuclear bomb would require eight kilograms of plutonium or 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium. Maerli and others at the conference said as little as 1 kilogram of plutonium would suffice.
But all sides agreed that the likely weapon of choice for nuclear terrorists would be the so-called "dirty bomb" -- regular explosives packed together with radioactive material stolen from industrial and medical sites. El Baradei acknowledged there is little if any monitoring of this type of material anywhere in the world.
Abel Gonzalez, the IAEA's director of radiation and waste safety, illustrated how devastating a single attack with such a bomb could be. He said scavengers broke into an abandoned radiological clinic in the Brazilian city of Goiania in 1987, stole an enclosed capsule of highly radioactive cesium-137 and moved it to a junkyard for sale as scrap. Junkyard workers then broke open the encasement and unwittingly cut up the 20-gram capsule of cesium-137, distributing the pieces to people who were likewise unaware of the risk. In the end, Gonzalez said, the commonplace theft left nearly 300 people exposed to powerful doses of radiation, four of whom died.
While an airborne attack on a nuclear power plant was considered a less likely possibility, Cameron of Sanford University said the type of truck bomb used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing could pose a very real threat to a nuclear power plant. But he said the greatest nightmare scenario facing nuclear facilities was a terrorist group either planting or recruiting someone inside the targeted facility.
"Probably the greatest threat, though -- in terms of the destruction of reactors -- is the combination of the insider and the outside terrorist group. And one of the aspects of the 11 September [attacks] was the enormous patience that was displayed in acquiring pilots' licenses [and] enormous preparation. It seems to me entirely credible, then, that a group such as Al-Qaeda might be willing to take the time to infiltrate a member of their group or recruit someone already in the facility with the object of attacking the facility."
Cameron notes that in 1992, a man named Oleg Sovchuk had threatened to destroy the nuclear power plant at Ignalina, Lithuania, with a computer virus he had developed while working at the plant.
Other conference participants talked of the threats surrounding the shipment of spent nuclear fuel. George Bunn of Stanford University in the United States pointed out an antitank weapon could rupture the canisters used to carry spent fuel.
IAEA director El Baredei criticized the lack of international cooperation between states in nuclear affairs because of security concerns. He also stressed the UN agency is not trying to whip up a panic, but rather raise awareness and improve security.
"We need to take preventive measures. We are not in any way trying to create panic -- far from it -- but what we are really saying is that we need to be prepared, we need to invest in preventive measures. We need to be concerned -- I think that is the key."
El Baradei said the IAEA is underfunded and cannot sufficiently protect the world from nuclear terrorism. The agency is looking for between $30 million and $50 million a year in additional funding to better tackle nuclear terrorism issues.