18 February 2014

Nuclear terrorism: An old worry made new

Dan Drollette Jr

Dan Drollette Jr

Dan Drollette, Jr. is a science writer/editor and foreign correspondent who has filed stories from every continent except Antarctica. His stories have appeared in Scientific American,...


At the Sochi Olympics, the prospect of terrorists setting off a conventional bomb laced with radioactive materials has been a real security concern and a focus of media reportage. Radical Islamic separatists from Chechnya, Dagestan, and elsewhere have given notice of a “surprise package,” presumably referring to radioactive metals, possibly including plutonium, stolen from a Russian nuclear power station in the southern region of Rostov several years ago.

Host officials are taking the threat of such a “dirty bomb” seriously, remembering when Chechen rebels left a substantial quantity of cesium 137 wrapped in conventional explosive in a Moscow park in 1996. Luckily, that device was not detonated. But just in case, Russian president Vladimir Putin has set up a 25-mile-wide, 60-mile-long “ring of steel” around Sochi. It is full of tens of thousands of army personnel and police, along with vast numbers of bomb-sniffing dogs, robots, metal detectors, drones, and even surface-to-air missiles, at a cost of nearly $2 billion for security alone.

Although the Sochi Olympics have served to emphasize them, worries about nuclear terror are not actually new—at least, not to Bulletin readers.

Nearly 40 years ago, a Bulletin article by law professor and disarmament expert Mason Willrich reported that security for US fissile material stockpiles was insufficient. That May 1975 article also quoted an Atomic Energy Commission report foreseeing the possible rise of "urban terrorist groups in this country ... likely to have available to them the sort of technical knowledge needed to use the now widely disseminated instructions for processing fissile materials and for building a nuclear weapon. They are also liable to be able to carry out reasonably sophisticated attacks on installations and transportation." 

In a December 1975 letter to the editor, Forrest R. Frank elaborated on Willrich's article, agreeing that “there is a possibility, however remote, that [safeguards over nuclear materials] might fail or be overcome and that nuclear theft or nuclear terrorist acts might occur."

“It took the international community several years at the cost of hundreds of casualties and tens of millions of dollars in property losses to come to grips with the problem of airplane hijackings," Frank concluded. “I do not believe we can afford the costs of a single episode of nuclear terrorism or nuclear theft. I fervently hope that we do not need such a stimulus to take seriously the problem of trying to cope with such acts.”

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