Nuclear terrorism is probably a far greater threat than the danger of a missile attack on the United States, but no effort is being made to detect fissionable material being smuggled into our country, and the Bush administration has slashed funding for efforts to help other nations like Russia safeguard their own nuclear materials.
Now that the cold war has ended, there are over 6 million pounds of bomb-grade plutonium and uranium left in the world, and most of it isn?t even kept in secure military installations.
Radioactive materials are missing, border controls are almost non-existent, monitoring equipment doesn?t work and smugglers are common. It?s only a matter of time before a terrorist group acquires the materials for the ultimate blackmail.
A small nuclear bomb, containing only a few pounds of plutonium or U-235 could destroy the Capitol, the White House, the Supreme Court and the Pentagon all at the same time. If Congress and the Supreme Court were in session and the President and Vice President in Washington, our government would end.
Right now, such a bomb could be moved into Washington with ease, and there are no contingency plans that would enable state governors to reconstruct the federal government.
According to Friedrich Steinhausler, a physicist from the University of Salzburg in Vienna, terrorists don?t even have to get enough material to make a nuclear bomb. They could steal radioactive isotopes from unprotected research and medical facilities with ?relative ease? and combine them with conventional explosives, or simply spread them through the ventilation system of an airport, office building or shopping mall. ?Such a potential future scenario emphasizes the low-tech terror of ?mass disruption? rather than ?mass destruction,?? Steinhausler says. He believes that up to 100 countries may be storing radioactive materials that are not properly safeguarded.
Working with colleagues at Stanford University, Steinhausler studied the nuclear security in 11 countries: the U.S., China, Germany, Austria, Poland, Romania, Switzerland, Israel, Brazil, Kazakhstan and Bangladesh. The study reveals gaping holes in their ability to detect nuclear smuggling, flaws in their audits of radioactive materials and serious shortages of trained staff, equipment and resources.
None of the countries has any radiation monitoring equipment on its unfenced borders, including the U.S. One of the countries has no monitoring equipment on any of its borders. A quarter of the countries do not keep registers of radioactive materials that may have been lost from laboratories and hospitals and half knew about the existence of unlicensed nuclear material. A third of the countries have had nuclear materials stolen from licensed sites in the past 10 years. Ian Ray, a forensic nuclear scientist from Germany, estimates that only 5 to 10 percent of the illegal traffic in radioactive materials is detected.
The British government has admitted that terrorists could easily make a crude atomic bomb from fuel produced at their new nuclear plant in northwest England that runs on MOX, a mixture of plutonium and uranium oxide.
The plant was built in 1996, but has never been started up because of doubts that it is economically viable. British physicist Frank Barney has written a confidential report showing how easy it would be to make MOX fuel into a bomb. The expertise needed is less than the skill used by the Japanese cult that produced sarin nerve gas for release into the Tokyo subway system in 1995. He feels it would be ?sheer irresponsibility? for the government to allow the plant to open, since theft of the pellets would then become a ?terrifying possibility.?
The British Nuclear Fuels Laboratory points out that MOX would be difficult to steal, because it always travels under armed guard and says the security arrangements ?are mature, comprehensive and robust.?
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