Nuclear attack: Now anything seems possible
By Jamie Allen
(CNN) -- Not since the height of the Cold War have Americans seriously considered they could come under nuclear attack.
But when President Bush said Tuesday that Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network is likely seeking weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear bombs, the possibility that the unthinkable could happen suddenly seemed less remote.
How plausible is that threat? Right now, that's all it appears to be -- a threat. Terrorists might want nuclear weapons, but no credible evidence has emerged to suggest that any terrorist group possesses such weapons, according to the latest intelligence made public.
Still, post-September 11, the potential can't be dismissed. At an October 30 press conference in Vienna, Austria, Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, identified a shifting of strategy in the "fight against terrorism."
"The willingness of terrorists to sacrifice their lives to achieve their evil aims creates a new dimension in the fight against terrorism," ElBaradei said.
"We are not just dealing with the possibility of governments diverting nuclear materials into clandestine weapons programs," he said. "Now we have been alerted to the potential of terrorists targeting nuclear facilities or using radioactive sources to incite panic, contaminate property, and even cause injury or death among civilian populations."
Nuclear attack scenarios
Imagined scenarios of nuclear attacks by terrorists generally fall into two categories. One: Terrorists unleash a nuclear or "dirty bomb," a conventional bomb loaded with radioactive junk. Two: They ram the United States' own nuclear facilities with a hijacked jetliner or truck bomb, causing toxic chemicals to disperse into the air.
One source of fears is the former Soviet Union. When it collapsed, some of its nuclear weapons -- including those that apparently could be carried in a suitcase or briefcase -- went unaccounted for in subsequent inventories, according to Bruce Blair, president of the Center for Defense Information, an independent military research organization.
Gen. Alexander Lebed, the Russian national security chief under President Boris Yeltsin, completed an inventory that "came up short by something between 50 and 100 suitcases," Blair said. "No one has really, persuasively explained the discrepancy between Lebed's count and what the Russian government said, which was, 'Don't worry, nothing's missing.'"
John Lepingwell, a nuclear expert with the Monterey Institute of International Studies, doesn't give any credence to a suitcase-bomb threat.
"There is no good evidence that any rebel group or terrorist has these," he told Time magazine.
Lepingwell also dismissed the possibility of terrorists building or getting their hands on a nuclear bomb and setting it off in the United States. "This threat is quite unlikely," he said.
Terrorists, he said, would have to surmount serious obstacles to carry off a nuclear- related attack. Among them:
-- Obtaining plutonium or highly-enriched uranium, the fissionable material of nuclear bombs. They'd have to buy it, steal it or produce it, and each case poses its own difficulties.
-- Building a bomb. "While creating a design may be possible, turning a design into a functioning weapon is not easy and would require time and substantial effort," Lepingwell said.
-- Delivering the bomb. "They would have to get it to the U.S. from wherever they built it," Lepingwell said. "Sending it airfreight or by sea would take time, and would require a string of contacts and checks that might be detected by intelligence agencies."
And the dirty bombs? The Center for Defense Information's Blair seems to think it's possible. He recalled how, in 1995, Chechen separatists put a canister in a Moscow park containing a highly radioactive byproduct of nuclear fission. It was a stunt, performed apparently to show how vulnerable Moscow was, Blair said. The United States, said Blair, is just as vulnerable.
"So with a dirty bomb, which could be a relatively small canister of nuclear waste that's exploded with dynamite in a city, the major problem probably would be the widespread evacuation and panic that would ensue," he said.
Another source of concern: so-called rogue nations could supply terrorists with nuclear weapons.
Former United Nations chief weapons inspector Richard Butler and his team went into Iraq to shut down Saddam Hussein's efforts to build a nuclear bomb at the dawn of the Persian Gulf war. Just in time, he said.
"I know with utter certainty that Iraq was months away from having nuclear weapons when we stopped them in 1990-'91," Butler said. "One of the key defectors from Iraq to the West, a man who was in charge of elements of Saddam Hussein's bomb program, actually said that he's already made one -- that Saddam has already put together a crude nuclear weapon."
But even if Hussein has a crude bomb, that doesn't guarantee he'd be willing to hand it over to terrorists; or, as Lepingwell noted, that terrorists would be able to transport it undetected to their desired location.
Another country watched closely by U.S. officials is the nuclear power Pakistan, according to Joseph Cirincione, nonproliferation project director for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a nonprofit organization that promotes U.S. interests in international relations.
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has let U.S.-led forces use bases in Pakistan in support of the war on terrorists in Afghanistan. Cirincione fears backlash in Pakistan against the Musharraf government and the United States could lead to a coup by Muslim extremists sympathetic with the Taliban; if they succeeded in overthrowing Musharraf's government, that would put nuclear weapons in their hands.
Shirin Tahir-Kheli, delegate to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, however, said that's not happening any time soon.
"If the state begins to unravel, it'll have to unravel very fundamentally before that becomes a reality," she said. "And I don't see that sort of nightmare scenario."
Attacking nuclear facilities
If nuclear weapons cannot be built or found, U.S. homeland security officials acknowledge terrorists could possibly attack U.S. nuclear plants using a hijacked plane or a large truck bomb.
"This is far more likely, although the consequences are likely to be far lower," said Lepingwell, who said that an attack on a nuclear facility does not guarantee a meltdown -- the perceived goal of such an effort. "The terror dimension may turn out to be greater than the actual destruction in such a case."
Victor Dricks, spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said steps have been taken since September 11 to increase security around nuclear facilities.
The facilities are on "highest alert," he said.
"In addition, we've issued more than half a dozen advisories in the last six weeks suggesting additional steps they could take to further increase security," Dricks said. "We also have sent letters to the governors of 40 states urging them to establish channels of communication with National Guard units in the event they feel the need to call upon them for assistance.
"And our emergency operation center has been manned around-the-clock for the past six weeks by people who remain in constant communication with law enforcement agencies, the intelligence community, state and local governments and the military," he said.
Not enough, said Paul Leventhal, a critic of nuclear proliferation who worked on Senate legislation to establish the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1974 and now serves as president of the Nuclear Control Institute.
He believes more needs to be done to protect nuclear facilities, including National Guard troops guarding every plant. Leventhal also recommends installing "anti-aircraft weapons like surface-to-air missile batteries" that could intercept a hijacked plane about to crash into a plant.
September 11 was "a wakeup call and let's just hope it's not too late," Leventhal said. "It's been very frustrating getting politicians and the public to pay attention to the dangers of nuclear proliferation."
Ultimately, the attacks of September 11 that shook the United States awoke Americans to grave possibilities.
Sam Nunn, chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said no matter how minuscule the chance of nuclear attack, there's work to be done.
"I don't think it is likely to happen, but if the odds against that were 1,000-to-one, we want to make them 10,000-to-one," he told CNN. "If they are 10,000-to-one against it happening we want to make it a million-to-one."
CNN National Security Correspondent David Ensor contributed to this report.
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