Expert says terrorists eventually will go nuclear 

I don’t know how we are going to stop it’

In a grim but frank assessment, a leading national security expert tells Bioterrorism Watch that it is only a matter of time before terrorists detonate a nuclear warhead in the United States. You read that correctly.

The prediction is not a dirty bomb device releasing radiation through a conventional explosive but an attack with a tactical nuclear warhead that could be placed in a vehicle.

"That’s my prediction, and I believe it will occur at some point," says Cham E. Dallas, PhD, director of the University of Georgia Interdisciplinary Toxicology Program in Athens and civilian national consultant for weapons of mass destruction for the U.S. Air Force Surgeon General. "Eventually, I think it is inevitable that they are going to get a warhead in the back of a van or an SUV, and I don’t know how we are going to stop it," he notes.

An era of "buffoon" terrorism marked by crude attempts with poorly understood agents eventually will be followed by terrorist possession of a nuclear weapon, says Dallas, who also is the director of the Center for Leadership in Education and Applied Research in Mass Destruction Defense (CLEARMADD), which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a specialty center in public health.

"Then somewhere down the line, one of them will hit pay dirt," he explains. "[If] they are intense enough in the dedication to the twisted cause they serve."

One of the world’s leading experts on the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in the former Soviet Union, Dallas is not given to hysterical forecasts. Suffice it to say, he hopes he is wrong. But in the even tones of a scientist and security expert, he assesses the threat and calls it as he sees it. For example, the much publicized dirty bomb threat is highly overrated, Dallas adds.

"When you get right down to it, a dirty bomb is only a hazard to human health really for the most part relative to its explosive capacity," Dallas says. "You take the people out of the area and treat them for injuries. But as far as contamination, you simply wash them off. You monitor them over time, but more than likely, the people that would be contaminated by a dirty bomb, I would predict less than 1% of those individuals would have any health effect. Now, if they ingested or inhaled anything at the time, that’s where your 1% risk goes up. As yet, we don’t have effective strategies for removing radioactive materials from the body. But as long as they are decontaminated, clothes disposed of, and skin thoroughly scrubbed, the risk probably is very low."

What about the feared dead zone of reactivity, where the plume was dispersed? Having seen the real thing in the Chernobyl area, Dallas does not think a dirty bomb will create a similar problem. "It is possible to decontaminate an area," he says. "With most dirty bombs, the area is going to be small. You are not talking about a nuclear crater here. It is a low-risk scenario, but it is not a good one. The panic and the economic loss are not to be underestimated. People have a deep-seated fear of radiation. But dirty bomb incidents — that is far down the list of what I think about. That is not one of the ones that keeps me awake at night."

No, sleepless nights come in contemplation of the sheer number and proliferation of nuclear weapons throughout the world. "The major risk is a fact that is not commonly known," Dallas notes. "There is not 1 ounce of plutonium in any of these nuclear weapons that has been deactivated and destroyed. The Soviet arsenal had over 17,000 tactical nuclear warheads; the ones that could be fired in a cannon, dropped from a plane, or carried in a brief case. They deactivated many of those. They take the warheads out and the plutonium pits out of the warheads, but they don’t destroy the plutonium pits. They are stored in warehouses, and there are thousands and thousands of them."

Frequent visits to Russia in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster have not been reassuring. "I don’t have a lot of confidence in the quality control within that system," he says. "I can only hope that they are keeping their eyes on those nuclear warheads. There are all sorts of stories about so-called loose nukes. I assume that the enemies of this country have nuclear weapons."

Dallas’ concerns were echoed by a recent report and analysis conducted for the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which was founded by former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-GA. "Because disputes over access to sensitive sites and other bureaucratic obstacles have been allowed to fester, the amount of nuclear material secured in the two years immediately following the 9/11 attacks was actually less than the amount secured in the two years immediately before the attacks," the report states. "An attack using an explosive — either a stolen nuclear weapon or an improvised terrorist bomb made from stolen nuclear material — would be among the most difficult types of attacks for terrorists to accomplish. But the danger is real."1

The lessons of Chernobyl

Dallas’ warning carries weight because he has visited Chernobyl many times as a research toxicologist and seen the direct effect of a radiological disaster. Some of the lessons about radiation were surprising in the aftermath of Chernobyl, he says.

"Many of the things that we were expecting to see, didn’t occur — for instance, birth defects," he says. "There was 100 million curries of radioactivity released, more than a 100 times the radioactivity released from Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. It was the largest airborne dispersal of radioactivity in history."

As the nuclear reactor fire efficiently dispersed radiation over the region for several days, there was wide expectation of birth defects. Of an estimated 90,000 pregnant women in the exposure area, some 30,000 decided to terminate their pregnancies. But birth defects related to radiation were not found in the babies that were brought to term, Dallas says. The babies apparently were safely shielded in the womb.

"Radiation is a factor of time, distance, and shielding," he adds. "The problem is ingestion and inhalation of radioactive particles. The Soviets did not tell their people what was going on for three days. If you take an iodine tablet within 12 hours of exposure to radiation, you will prevent 100% of thyroid cancer. It is the preventable cancer from radiation. I mean it will be zero."

Since that was not done in a timely fashion, there was an explosion of thyroid cancer in the years that followed the Chernobyl disaster. The primary victims were children who were ages 4 to 12 when they were exposed to the radiation, Dallas adds. "In that group, we saw thousands of thyroid cancers, and not all of them were next to the reactors. Many of them were hundreds of miles away. The thyroid cancer incidence was clustered along the rail line from Chernobyl to Moscow. It was not related to the radioactive plume, the airborne dispersion. It was correlated with the rail line, which we hypothesize had to do with food consumption. They get their food right off the train."

Dallas has stood on top of an empty skyscraper and looked out across the abandoned city of Prtivia, which sits near the Chernobyl site. "It was a town of 70,000 people, a very modern town by Russian standards because it was a nuclear industry town. It is abandoned, and it will be abandoned for quite for some time, for a long time. Because Prtivia was directly in the plume of the reactor burn, people stood on their balconies for three days and watched the fire burn."

The area most directly contaminated by the disaster is called the exclusion zone, and a respirator must be worn to enter it, he says. "You can still go through it for short periods of time without hazard, as long as you don’t eat or breathe anything," he says.

Some Russians are now farming and moving back within about 20 miles of the exclusion zone, Dallas explains. "The good news is that the contamination [there] was not as bad as we thought it would be. We had this moonscape mentality, but it is was just not true."

Unfortunately, that ghastly vision may well be true if a nuclear weapon is exploded in a city. "A single medium-range nuclear weapon would fill every burn bed in the eastern United States," he says. "You could lose 1 million people at once. That is the real threat. It’s one we’ve all grown up with, but it is very different now. We are not talking about a nuclear exchange with another power."

Reference

1. Bunn M, Wier A. Securing the Bomb: An Agenda for Action. Washington, DC: Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Project on Managing the Atom, Harvard University; May 2004.