January 22, 2008

Preventing nuclear terrorism worldwide

17:33 | 21/ 01/ 2008

MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti) - Starting in 2008, the U.S. defense budget will feature allocations for protection against nuclear terrorism.

This will ensure the safe storage of radioactive substances in the United States and abroad, and will facilitate operations against terrorist groups attempting to lay their hands on nuclear weapons.

Russia also considers this to be a serious problem. In late 2007, President Vladimir Putin told a meeting of the Presidium of the State Council that nuclear power plants and storage facilities for radioactive materials must be reliably protected from any criminals. He said Russia had accumulated over 70 million metric tons of solid-state radioactive waste, and that the processing infrastructure was not sufficiently developed.

If terrorists got hold of nuclear weapons, they could use them for hitting preset targets. They could also attack nuclear reactors and other similar facilities or try and build radiological weapons using radioactive materials.

The problem is quite serious because the eight nuclear powers, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel, now wield 12,100 combat-ready nuclear warheads plus another 15,000 reserve warheads.

Russia and the United States each have 5,682 and 5,521 nuclear warheads, including 3,352 and 5,021 strategic warheads and 2,330 and 500 tactical munitions, respectively.

The United Kingdom, France and China each have 185, 348 and 130 combat-ready nuclear warheads, respectively.

The West often claims that Russia does not ensure the safe storage of nuclear warheads. In the mid-1980s, even small units of the Soviet Armed Forces had many nuclear weapons stored at thousands of facilities with up-to-date security systems.

In the late 1980s, the Defense Ministry decided to store all nuclear weapons in Russia after conflicts flared up in outlying Soviet regions. By December 1991, Ukraine remained the only post-Soviet republic with a substantial nuclear arsenal that was dismantled in the early 1990s. Moreover, all nuclear weapons were removed from the former Warsaw Pact countries.

By the mid-1990s, all nuclear munitions, including those of small army units, were stockpiled in arsenals of the Defense Ministry's 12th Main Directorate in charge of nuclear control. Such arsenals are pretty well protected and can even withstand a nuclear blast. To the best of our knowledge, similar foreign compounds also feature reliable security systems for warding off intruders.

However, dozens of countries operating their own nuclear power plants, industrial and research reactors, nuclear-fuel production, processing and recycling plants, as well as uranium-ore production and enrichment facilities, face even more substantial security risks.

A medium-yield nuclear warhead taken apart by terrorists would contaminate an area of several square kilometers for many years. However, several hundred kilometers would be contaminated if terrorists succeed in damaging a reactor or a facility storing spent nuclear fuel.

An explosion at a uranium-enrichment factory or a reactor producing nuclear materials would contaminate several thousand square kilometers of the surrounding territory.

These scenarios seem terrifyingly possible. Nikolai Patrushev, Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), has said the intentions of terrorists to obtain radioactive materials and gain access to nuclear technologies is one of the most serious current threats.

Many experts believe that some facilities storing high-enriched uranium and weapon-grade plutonium in Russia, the United States and some other countries are vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and it is much easier to fashion a home-made bomb out of uranium-235 than plutonium-240. However, NPP uranium and submarine nuclear fuel cannot be used to make primitive "dirty bombs," or radiological dispersal devices combining radioactive materials with conventional explosives. Such bombs are unable to trigger a chain reaction but can, nonetheless, contaminate large areas.

Preventing extremists' attempts to steal high-enriched uranium and weapon-grade plutonium are the last line of defense and a key factor preventing disastrous acts of nuclear terrorism.

Police Colonel General Andrei Novikov, Director of the CIS Counter-Terrorist Center, has cited International Atomic Energy Agency statistics highlighting 1,080 cases of illegal trade, use, storage and theft of nuclear or radioactive materials worldwide from January 1993 till December 2006. He said European authorities had registered a 100% increase in the smuggling of radioactive-materials suitable for making dirty bombs since 2002.

Experts say in the next few years, terrorists could shift their gaze toward Central Asia, namely, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, where large uranium deposits are located.

According to Russian experts, the current counter-terrorist system rules out acts of nuclear terrorism worldwide. However, effective counter-terrorist operations should not be merely based on sporadic secret-service responses or chance successes. A system of comprehensive measures is the only way to save the world from a nuclear holocaust.

The international community, primarily the Nuclear Club, must draft and implement such measures.

Yury Zaitsev is an academic adviser with the Russian Academy of Engineering Sciences.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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