WMD Terrorism Remains Grave Threat, U.S. Says
The possibility that a terrorist organization might launch a WMD attack remains one of the “gravest threats” to the security of the United States and its allies, the U.S. State Department said yesterday in its annual terrorism report (see GSN, June 8).
The “Country Reports on Terrorism 2009″ addressed the threat of terrorism involving chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons and Washington’s response to those dangers.
The State Department noted that al-Qaeda and other extremist groups have expressed interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.
“The diffusion of scientific and technical information regarding the a Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorismssembly of nuclear weapons, some of which is now available on the Internet, has increased the risk that a terrorist organization in possession of sufficient fissile material could develop its own crude nuclear weapon,” the report says. “The complete production of a nuclear weapon strongly depends on the terrorist group’s access to special nuclear materials as well as engineering and scientific expertise.”
Due to the proliferation efforts of “irresponsible countries” like North Korea, “the number of potential sources of an unsecured nuclear weapon or materials is challenging worldwide efforts to control and account for nuclear material,” according to the State Department. Extremists could also look to underground smuggling networks and international criminal organizations for aid in acquiring or developing anuclear devices, the report says.
While the terrorist detonation of a radiological “dirty bomb” would not be as calamitous as a terrorist nuclear attack, the prevalence of radioactive substances “in nearly every country” means it is much easier to acquire the materials to construct such a weapon, the report says.
“Most radioactive materials lack sufficient strength to present a significant public health risk once dispersed, while the materials posing the greatest hazard would require terrorists to have the expertise to handle them without exposure to incapacitating doses of radiation or detection during transit across international borders,” the report says.
However, detonation of a radiological weapon — which would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material — could cause a significant amount of panic and financial “disruption,” the State Department said.
The report notes the potential for a bioterrorism strike, as “the materials required to produce a biological weapon are available in laboratories worldwide, and may threat agents could be isolated from nature.” Al-Qaeda is believed to have pressed harder than other terrorist groups to obtain or produce biological weapons, according to the report, which cites the U.S. discovery of an unfinished laboratory in Afghanistan.
“If properly produced and released, biological agents can kill on a massive scale and, if terrorists use a pathogen that can be transmitted from person to person, the disease could quickly spread through commercial air travel across oceans and continents before authorities realize their nations have been attacked,” the report says.
Floating Nuclear Reactors Could Fall Prey to Terrorists, Experts Say
By Martin Matishak Global Security Newswire
Second in a five-part Global Security Newswire series on emerging technologies and scientific advances that might pose new proliferation risks.
WASHINGTON — Russia is wrapping up work on the first of a proposed fleet of floating nuclear reactors that would provide electricity to remote areas, but that are also more vulnerable to terrorists and even piracy than traditional power stations, experts say (see GSN, Oct. 1, 2007).
Sailing small, modular atomic reactors raises concerns about proliferation, along with their safety in extreme weather conditions and what to do with the radioactive waste they produce.
“The sort of emotional reaction is, well, if you didn’t like nuclear power reactors to begin with will you like them any better if they’re floating?” Sharon Squassoni, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Proliferation and Prevention Program, said in a recent telephone interview. “Probably not. Whatever problems you have on land, you can equally have on sea only if you have a core meltdown in the water you’re going to have a huge radioactive problem on hand.”
Russia’s nuclear agency launched the Academician Lomonosov, a barge that would eventually carry a power plant, on June 30 in St. Petersburg. The $200 million vessel, which measures roughly 472 feet long and 98 feet wide, would accommodate two 35-megawatt reactors, known as KTL-40Cs, and could provide electricity for up to 200,000 people, Rosatom officials say.
The average land-based nuclear power reactor generates about 1,000 megawatts of electricity, Squassoni said.
The reactor itself would be ready to operate in late 2012, the first of seven vessels Russia intends to build within five years. At least 15 countries — including Algeria, Argentina, China and Malaysia — have shown interest in contracting the services of such a system, according to the nuclear agency.
The first ship would help power Vilyuchinsk, a city on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula that serves as an atomic submarine base. Similar models could deliver electricity to the country’s hard-to-reach northern territories, where harsh weather makes regular coal and oil deliveries unreliable and expensive. The reactor could also be modified into a desalination plant in order to produce fresh water.
Nuclear fuel for the plant would be loaded in the northern Murmansk region, and the station towed to its place of operation. The plant would store waste and spent fuel in an onboard facility that workers would empty every 10 to 12 years during regular maintenance overhauls. The reactor and the spent fuel would then go to a storage facility in Russia, but the barge could be recycled.
The ships would need to be refueled once every three years. The vessel would be hauled away after 32 years of service.
The station’s offshore locale is a key potential benefit as the power plant would be kept away from population areas where residents might otherwise object to the presence of nuclear energy operations, according to Mark Hibbs, a senior associate in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Other advantages include lower upfront investment costs for the smaller, modular reactors and the system’s overall ability to be towed near remote settlements where need for electricity is greatest, he said in a recent telephone interview. Hibbs added that Indonesia, and far-flung parts of its archipelago, could be the technology’s biggest potential customer.
The technology could also prove particularly beneficial to mining companies to power operations to extract oil and gas and other valuable minerals from the Arctic shore and other remote regions, he told Global Security Newswire.