The devastating terrorist attacks on New York and Washington have changed forever the way we see terrorism. What was previously brushed aside as being in the realm of nightmare must now be viewed as a definite risk: nothing can be ruled out. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke talks to experts to assess the risks of extremists using nuclear, biological or chemical warfare in what might be called the new era of terrorism and counter-terrorism.
Prague, 20 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The scale and ingenuity of the terrorist attacks in the United States are leading to increased awareness of society's vulnerability. There is a sense of dread that acts once considered unthinkable now fall within the scope of reality.
The vivid scenes of aircraft crashing into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York are branded into the world's consciousness. What would be the effects of a fully laden airliner crashing into the containment building around a nuclear reactor?
David Kyd, the chief spokesman of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, sketches the resulting scenario:
"The combined impact [of the plane] plus the detonation of the fuel would likely rupture the containment, and the [question would be] -- depending on whether it was a real direct hit or an indirect hit -- would the cooling system rupture, would the back-up cooling system function or not, would the operators of the plant survive and be able to react? If all of those things are not so, then what would happen is that you would have a fuel meltdown and a radioactive release."
Kyd says that the extent of the radiation released depends on various factors, like the type of the reactor and the rate at which it was running at the time of the hit:
"If you assume it was running at a hundred percent, producing electricity as it would be most of the time, then you would be talking, indeed, something on the scale of Chornobyl."
Chornobyl, history's worst nuclear accident, occurred in Ukraine in April 1986, when there was a fire and explosion in the fourth reactor. A radioactive cloud spread over Scandinavia and both Eastern and Western Europe, and caused a higher level of ambient radioactivity as far away as Australia.
In the West, nuclear power plants are surrounded by containment structures typically designed to withstand earthquake shocks and light plane crashes and keep radiation from being released into the atmosphere. But across Central and Eastern Europe, as in Russia, the older type Soviet-era reactors like Chornobyl lack proper containment structures, making them still more vulnerable to attack.
Kyd acknowledges this vulnerability:
"Yes, yes, yes, they are, but so is everything else -- so are oil refineries, airports, all the infrastructure of a modern industrialized state. These things are not made to withstand attack from a wide-bodied jet full of fuel. It's as simple as that. So we are now in a new and much more precarious situation.
Coupled with the possibility of attacks on nuclear power plants is the threat that terrorist groups might gain -- or already have -- possession of a nuclear bomb. That's been a theme that has been around in the movies for decades. But according to Leonard Spector, a senior member of the Monterey Institute -- a Washington-based think-tank -- the reality is more complicated:
"The difficulty of acquiring materials for nuclear weapons and crafting a nuclear device itself is extremely high. Now, I will caveat that in a moment, but broadly speaking this is seen as too far beyond the skills of virtually any kind of an organization, except a nation, and even then it would have to be a pretty capable nation."
Spector says it would take any country between five and 10 years to produce ingredients for nuclear weapons, and would involve using extremely complicated facilities. Then, or course, such materials would have to come into the hands of terrorists. It's an unlikely scenario, Spector says, but one that is aided by the collapse of a former nuclear superpower:
"The one problem is that there is this danger of leakage of nuclear material for weapons from the former Soviet Union, especially Russia. The United States has been working very actively with Russia to secure nuclear materials. We have not seen cases of leakage, but that is the one unknown. And if a terrorist organization were to acquire nuclear materials, it might be able to either perpetrate a hoax, claiming to have a nuclear device, or conceivably actually design something which would explode."
So the risk of terrorism by nuclear bomb exists, although it does not appear to pose an immediate threat to society because of the great technical difficulties involved.
And what of the other weapons of mass destruction, namely biological and chemical weapons? Would they be easier for terrorists to employ than a nuclear device? A London-based expert with Jane's military publishing group, John Eldridge, says in contrast to nuclear materials, biological warfare materials are not difficult to obtain: "Well, there are loads of different materials they can use. The classic material that people quote at the moment is anthrax, and the reason that appears to be a weapon of choice is because it can be created in conditions which make it extremely robust and resistant to the things which normally kill viruses and bacteria."
Eldridge goes on to say that the impact of a successful terrorist attack using a biological agent like deadly anthrax -- an acute infectious disease -- would take time to become evident because of the incubation period involved. But a release of anthrax spores could have a national or even international impact because of the way the wind and human travelers would spread the infection.
An attempt to use biological warfare for terrorist purposes, Eldridge says, has already reputedly taken place:
"The Aum Shinrikyo terrorists in Japan had certainly made and refined anthrax, and had used it, but it was fairly poor quality and the reports indicated that it never actually worked."
By contrast, the same Japanese group, the Aum Shinrikyo, has certainly used gas successfully. In a terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 using the invisible nerve gas sarin, the group killed 12 people and injured hundreds of others.
Eldridge says that the impact of gas warfare is more localized than that of biological materials, since the logistics of moving around very large containers of gas make it less suitable for terrorist attacks on a mass scale.
So it's clear that any consideration of international terrorism must factor in modern weapons of mass destruction -- whether nuclear, biological or chemical. But does this mean we must expect terrorist attacks on these fronts now? Not necessarily, some experts say. Amy Smithson of the Henry L. Stimson Center for security issues in Washington puts it this way:
"When one examines the history of terrorist activities, what is clear is that they use the weapons they know the most. That is bombs of various types: pipe bombs, truck bombs, boat bombs, and now we've seen airliners turned into bombs."
In London, expert Eldridge agrees with that idea. He notes that the basic weapons apparently used in the U.S. terrorist incidents were not the latest high-tech gadgets but simple knives. Smithson emphasizes this theme:
"When the statistics are examined for what terrorists have been doing with chemical and biological substances, most of their activities by far have involved hoaxes, plots and pranks, and this is true around the world. On the rare occasions when they have used these substances, their intention has not been to cause mass casualties, but rather they have used these substances in an attempt to assassinate individuals or opponents."
Further, Smithson cites the technical difficulties involved, even when resources are plentiful:
"In Aum Shinrikyo's case -- this was a terror group which specifically recruited scientists and technically skilled people, for the purpose of trying to improve its chemical and biological weapons programs. They were very, very wealthy [and] they had a lot of technical resources to put into their chemical and biological weapons programs. But their bio-weapons program was a flop, from start to finish."
So it seems the world does not face imminent terrorist threats stemming from nuclear, biological or chemical warfare. That, of course, can change in time. And the threats to nuclear power stations should be considered as real potential dangers.