Thursday, December 01, 2005

Nukes and Terrorists

A couple of weeks ago, there was some news coverage here in New York about some radioactive material that had gone missing at JFK Airport. Of course, the news article went on to talk about how this material could have been used to make a so-called "dirty bomb".

A few months back, I wrote a post about dirty bombs, and how ineffective one would actually be. While a dirty bomb might scare people, and may make a few people sick, it would likely not kill anyone, and most of its contamination would be washed away in the first good rain. Pound for pound, a chemical weapon would be much more effective, and much easier for a terrorist to get his hands on or make.

So why is the press making such a big deal about dirty bombs? Perhaps a sensationalist ploy, playing on people's fears in an attempt to sell more newspapers?

One of the real problems with making this big fuss about dirty bombs is I think we are understating the risk of a terrorist making a real nuke. As I wrote in another post, making a real atomic bomb is not that hard - the only hard part is getting your hands on the main ingredient: either enriched uranium or plutonium. And, you can't exactly go buy these items at the store.... or can you?

Enriched uranium or plutonium can be easily diverted from a rogue nation's "peaceful nuclear energy" program. Most nuclear reactors need enriched uranium to operate, and as I wrote earlier, it is very expensive and difficult to make enriched uranium. But, if you're making it anyway for use in your country's "peaceful nuclear energy" program, it's not that hard to divert a few pounds for a less peaceful purpose. Likewise, you can get plutonium by "reprocessing" the used nuclear fuel rods, the so-called "nuclear waste" from a power plant.

Just how easy is it to buy uranium or plutonium? If you try to buy it in Western countries like the US or Canada, you'll find yourself in jail. But what about developing countries? North Korea has a nuclear program, a whole lot of starving people, and too much pride to accept charity. Not a good combination. If someone approached North Korea and offered to buy plutonium or enriched uranium, do you think they'd sell it?

And what about Iran? Iran has a nuclear program, and a number of ideological extremists in places of power. If someone asked Iran for enriched uranium or plutonium to attack its declared enemies (Israel or America) with, they might even give it away.

Maybe al-Qaeda already has the ingredients for a nuclear weapon and is just waiting for the opportunity to use it..... a chilling thought indeed.

This whole topic is very scary.