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Nuclear terrorism threat growing
BY DANIEL RUBIN Knight Ridder Foreign Service
VIENNA, Austria -- After a month of dealing with anthrax fears, counterterrorism experts have their eyes on an even more ominous threat: a crude but effective nuclear attack. U.S. intelligence and law enforcement officials say they have no evidence that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network or any other terrorist group has built, bought or stolen a nuclear weapon.
Terrorists, they say, are more likely to make a "dirty" bomb by mixing radioactive material with a conventional explosive or to attack a nuclear reactor with a truck bomb, plane or boat.
The vulnerability of power plants moved to center stage after last Sunday, when Canadian authorities monitored a phone call from an alleged al-Qaida member to Afghanistan. Two targets, he said, would be attacked this week "down south," including an unnamed nuclear facility.
"We now see nuclear terrorism to be a real possibility," said Mohamed El Baradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who Friday addressed a special U.N. session on nuclear terrorism here.
The agency is calling for international standards to protect radioactive materials from falling into the hands of extremists.
U.S. officials are concerned that two Pakistani nuclear scientists arrested by Pakistan might have given the al-Qaida network instructions how to build a dirty bomb with radioactive waste or enriched uranium, which associates of bin Laden reportedly have sought to acquire.
The most probable terrorist device could contain radioactive materials easily stolen from U.S. hospitals, research labs and industrial sites, said George Bunn, a professor at the Stanford University Center for International Security & Cooperation.
"If you explode a dirty bomb, you might not even kill anyone," he said, "but you would give everyone a real scare."
According to the Vienna-based IAEA, a watchdog agency that until Sept. 11 had focused on safety and keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of rogue nations, terrorists have never used a nuclear bomb, and bin Laden is not known to possess a nuclear capability.
Eighteen times since 1993, people have been found to be trafficking in highly enriched uranium or plutonium, the materials needed to make a nuclear bomb, the agency reported.
Less likely than dirty bombs, but far more devastating, would be attacks on nuclear reactors with truck bombs or planes, Bunn said.
In a recent Stanford survey of countries with peaceful nuclear programs, not one of the six respondents reported plans for dealing with truck bombs.
While nuclear power plants are built to withstand accidental crashes of small planes, a precision strike is another thing, Bunn said.
Another expert in nuclear terrorism, Matthew Bunn, an assistant director at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said he was most worried about "insiders" at nuclear facilities in Pakistan.
"It doesn't matter how many rings of men with guns you have around the place if an insider is working with terrorists," said Bunn, whose father is the Stanford professor.
He also voiced concerns about the loyalties of scientists in the former Soviet Union who live in 10 "nuclear cities" and earn the equivalent of $300 a month.
Asked which countries might unwillingly become unwitting sources for nuclear materials, he mentioned Yugoslavia, which he said has enough high-energy plutonium for a bomb, as well as Uzbekistan, Ukraine, Kazakstan and Latvia.
Many scientists at the conference have been warning about nuclear terrorism for years.
However, little money is spent on protecting against such threats, and the agency has no power to investigate the way nuclear materials are handled by the "nuclear weapons states" -- the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain and France.
And the other countries with nuclear capability -- Israel, India and Pakistan -- share little if any information.
"You cannot impose any safeguards on them," said Morten Maerli, a researcher with the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. "This is a major problem."
The agency has called for an international approach to what has been largely the job of individual countries -- and one shrouded in secrecy by those protecting military operations.
The agency, with a $100 million annual budget, says it needs to spend an additional $30 million to $50 million a year shoring up the safety of nuclear materials.
"This is a threat we basically know how to fix," Matthew Bunn said. "It's a matter of writing a check."
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), November 03, 2001
A significant danger is from the H.E.A.T. missiles that the CIA has given to the terrorists. High energy anti tank missiles have the power to penetrate power station containment domes.
These terrorists are even treacherous enough to use nuclear waste (instead of lead) in their bullets... but I don't know if such bullets were part of the CIA gift.
-- Mark Blaine (firstname.lastname@example.org), November 03, 2001.