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Terrorists Capable of Using Crude Nuclear Bombs, Experts Warn

November 03, 2001|From Reuters

VIENNA — Nuclear experts said Friday that any act of nuclear terrorism could use crude weapons from commonplace radioactive materials aimed more at spreading panic than causing physical harm.

"In some states where radioactive materials are not well regulated, they are potentially available," said Graham Andrew, scientific advisor at the International Atomic Energy Agency, a global watchdog organization.

At an agency conference on nuclear terrorism in the Austrian capital, Andrew said in an interview that terrorists could take radiotherapy or X-ray materials from hospitals to construct a crude bomb.

While such a weapon might not wreak devastation, it would certainly spread panic.

"On the consequence side, you're not going to get a large number of fatalities," he said. "The consequence is going to be more one of economic disruption and anxiety in the public."

Often referred to as a "dirty bomb," such a device could easily be built by surrounding a radioactive source with explosives and detonating it to spread radioactivity across a wide area.

"The potential for panic is quite large. Radioactivity is invisible; you can't see it or feel it. And you don't know what its impact on your health in 10 years will be," Andrew said.

The agency's director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, told the conference that although it is highly unlikely that terrorists could get their hands on a sophisticated nuclear weapon and detonate it, that could not be ruled out.

The agency has called on countries to review security and protection for all radioactive materials.

ElBaradei said the agency is aware of 175 cases of trafficking of nuclear materials since 1993. Of those, 18 involved highly enriched uranium or plutonium, materials needed to make a nuclear bomb. But the agency's experts judged the quantities of plutonium involved were insufficient to make a nuclear bomb.

Jerrold Post, a terrorism expert at George Washington University in Washington, said an attack on a nuclear facility by religious fundamentalists was certainly conceivable in light of the events of Sept. 11.

Post said he had interviewed suspected fundamentalist attackers and told the conference the results were "startling and chilling."

Post said that when asked if there were any limits to the numbers of casualties they wanted to inflict, one suspect said: "The more casualties, the better. The greater the number of casualties, the greater the measure of success."

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