Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism Law
On June 11 last week, a five-day conference began at the
Intercontinental Miami Hotel, to discuss the threat of nuclear
terrorism. The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism
Law Enforcement Conference was attended by about 500 law
enforcement officers. Speakers included Attorney General Alberto
R. Gonzales, Ms. Frances Fragos Townsend, Homeland Security
Advisor to the President and Dr. Richard Falkenrath of the NYPD,
Deputy Commissioner, Counterterrorism for the City of New York.
Several US government agencies were represented at the conference.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the European
Union had also sent representatives to witness the proceedings.
The meeting coincided with another conference in the same program,
which took place simultaneously in Astana, the capital of
Kazakhstan. There were satellite link-ups to the Kazakh
convention, where representatives of 40 nations were present.
The Miami and Astana conferences were the latest to be held to
discuss the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism
a program which was officially announced on
July 15, 2006
during the G8 summit in St Petersburg, Russia. Originally a joint
US/Russian initiative, the program is now subscribed to by 50
other nations. On October 29-30, 2006, the inaugural conference of
the program in Rabat, Morocco, was attended by representatives of
12 nations. That event saw
the 13th member of the program, and concluded with a resolution to
fight the threat of nuclear terrorism from a broad front,
involving other willing nations, to create a "vast alliance". The
second conference took place in Ankara, Turkey, in
opening speech of the Miami conference was made by the head of the
Robert S. Mueller III
In this speech, Mr. Mueller stated that the need to secure "loose
nuclear material" was paramount. He
" Al Qaeda has demonstrated a clear intent to acquire weapons of
mass destruction. In 1993, Osama bin Laden attempted to buy
uranium from a source in the Sudan. He has stated that it is Al
Qaeda's duty to acquire weapons of mass destruction. And he has
made repeated recruiting pitches for experts in chemistry,
physics, and explosives to join his terrorist movement.... We have
often said that the next terrorist attack is not a question of if,
but when. If we up the ante to a nuclear terrorist attack, we know
it is a question of if, but we cannot let it become a question of
when. Now is the time to act."
Richard Falkenrath addressed the conference and spoke of security
agencies' preoccupations with the dangers of shipping containers
potentially carrying nuclear components. He said: "This is the big
focus. I don't know why they've gotten so much attention. They are
important and I am not suggesting to ignore them, but they should
not be the focus of attention above and beyond all others as a
potential delivery vehicle." He warned that trucks and vans (which
are easy to acquire and pass unnoticed in large cities) and also
small aircraft and light vessels, could become the vectors by
which nuclear weapons could be transported.
On the same day, Vayl Oxford, Director of the Domestic Nuclear
Detection Office in the Department of Homeland Security, said that
the US Coast Guard would be furnished with radiation detection
technology. He said that more than 90% of all cargo entering the
US is already being scanned for radiological content. He said that
agents of the FBI are detailed full-time to the Domestic Nuclear
Dr. Vahid Majidi, head of the FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction
conference's success in "opening a dialogue with our partner
agencies and the international community on the entire scope of
weapons of mass destruction." He mentioned bilateral agreements
which took place last week between the US and five nations which
would lead to greater intelligence cooperation. Those countries
are Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Chile, and Mexico.
Miami's Orange Bowl, delegates from 28 nations watched a
demonstration of how law enforcement officers would tackle a
radiological dispersal device ("dirty bomb" or RDD) being
constructed in a mock warehouse. Two SWAT teams and a team from
the Department of Energy Radiological Assistance Program descended
on the scene. Once the radiological materials and "dirty bomb"
were "discovered", these were neutralized by a robot, which
sprayed water onto them.
There is a real need for agencies to be prepared for the threat
of a nuclear attack, but while making preparations to combat such
a scenario, government agencies seem to be simultaneously trying
to avoid spreading panic. The
writes on its
website "even if the likelihood of such an attack in the near-term
is fairly low".
Fissile Nuclear Devices
There are valid reasons to be concerned about the plausibility of
a nuclear attack, and particularly one aimed at the heart of a
major US city, such as Washington DC or New York. The
simplest nuclear fission device
would involve highly enriched uranium (HEU), in a "gun-assembly"
of the type used in Hiroshima. Essentially, the Hiroshima A-bomb
comprised a six foot-long gun barrel, only six inches in diameter,
and sealed at both ends. One end of the barrel contained a mass of
Uranium-235, with a second mass housed in the center of the
barrel. At the opposing end, sealed within the barrel, were
conventional explosives. Once detonated, the conventional
explosives propelled the central mass of uranium isotope into the
mass at the opposing end, causing nuclear fission.
needed for a fissile device is far more than weapons-grade
plutonium - about 25 kilograms or 55 pounds, though with a
beryllium reflector less than 15 kilograms (33 pounds) is needed.
Hiroshima's "Little Boy" bomb is
contained 60 kilograms (132 lbs) of uranium-235. The "Fat Man"
bomb which was detonated at Nagasaki contained 6.1 kilograms of
plutonium-239. To extract 25 kilograms of easily fissionable HEU
from natural uranium, a starting quantity of 3,570 kilograms or
7,860 pounds is required.
The "yield" of the Hiroshima bomb was about 10 kilotons - i.e. it
had the destructive power of 10,000 tons of TNT. It detonated in
people instantly. Half a mile from the explosion's center, there
was total vaporization, destruction within a mile radius, and
within a two and a half mile radius, everything flammable caught
fire. The HEU in the Hiroshima bomb was only
. About 12
kilograms of extremely pure HEU could feasibly produce a fissile
device with a yield of 10-20 kilotons. Detonated from the ground,
the most likely terrorist scenario, the extent of destruction from
a 10-20 kilotons would not be as high as that witnessed at
Hiroshima, but as I will explain in Part Two, it would still be
To prepare weapons-grade uranium-235, specialized centrifuges,
uranium hexaflouride gas and other components are required. These
components are strictly controlled in the West. Despite this,
Abdul Qadeer Khan was able, with the assistance of Dutch citizen
import vital nuclear bomb components to Pakistan. A. Q. Khan went
on to create Pakistan's first nuclear bombs, which were detonated
May 28, 1998
Q. Khan admitted in February 2004 that he sold nuclear secrets to
Iran, Libya and North Korea, but was subsequently
President Pervez Musharraf. The fruits of Khan's subterfuge have
been devastating. In
Musharraf admitted that Khan had illegally sent centrifuges to
North Korea, and on
October 9, 2006
Pyongyang detonated its first nuclear bomb.
Shortly after Khan's 2004 televised confession, Sri Lankan
"middleman" Buhary Syed Abu Tahir
2001, Khan sent enriched uranium to Libya. Abu Tahir, who resides
in Dubai and Malaysia, where he is married to a Malaysian
national, was not prosecuted for his involvement in the illegal
broken no national law. Around 1994-5, Khan had sent two
containers of used centrifuge components to Iran. These had been
shipped via Dubai, where Khan had an apartment. Iran paid $3
million for this consignment.
April 11, 2006
Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced on national TV
that his country had enriched uranium to a level required for
nuclear fuel, though only on a "laboratory scale". While
Ahmadinejad claimed that "our enemies cannot do a damned thing",
his audience chanted "Death to America". At its nuclear facilities
in Isfahan, Iran then had 164 enrichment centrifuges.
Mohammad Saeedi, Iran's deputy nuclear chief, announced on
April 12, 2006
that in the fall of 2006 the nation would begin to construct a
3,000-centrifuge plant, followed by a 54,000 centrifuge plant at
an underground facility at Natanz. It is only a matter of time
before Iran possesses the means to create its own uranium-235. As
it already funds terror group Hamas, and is implacably hostile to
Israel, it is likely that Iran will voluntarily donate uranium-235
to terrorist causes, if it does not attack Israel on its own
Uranium-235 is less detectable to radiological sensors than
plutonium, particularly if it is surrounded by lead. The costs of
producing this material are astronomical, but attempts to obtain
such enriched uranium have been made on numerous occasions by
members of Al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden is on record as stating that
obtaining nuclear weaponry is a "religious obligation". In 2002,
authors M & G Bunn produced a report for the International Atomic
Energy Agency (pdf format) entitled "Reducing
the Threat of Nuclear Theft and Sabotage
The authors stated (p 3) that "there have been a number of
confirmed cases of theft of kilogram quantities of weapons-usable
material in the former Soviet Union. Russian officials have
confirmed that as recently as 1998, there was an insider
conspiracy at one of Russia's largest nuclear weapons facilities
to steal 18.5 kilograms of HEU - one that was stopped before the
material actually left the gates."
The authors recommended that more cooperation was needed between
Russia and America to consolidate their defenses against
terrorists' acquisition of nuclear materials, and the
Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism
aims to fulfill that requirement. In
Intelligence Digest reported that since 1992 there were 175
attempts by criminals and/or terrorists to acquire or smuggle
In 1998 in Italy criminals were caught attempting to sell 19.9%
enriched uranium, and in April 2000 Colombia, a small consignment
of HEU - 66% of which contained uranium-235 - was discovered in
the possession of an animal feed salesman. In the same month an
amount of enriched uranium weighing 920 grams was seized in the
former Soviet state of Georgia. In
quantity of 1.7 kilograms of uranium-235 was discovered in
Georgia, apparently on its way to Turkey. The material was thought
at the time to have come from a Russian submarine. In the same
month, five grams of enriched uranium were discovered in Paris,
and in Germany, a man was arrested for stealing contaminated
in Central Asia, a smuggler was found to have kept 60 small
containers of weapons-grade plutonium-239 in a sheepfold. Earlier
in the same year, two Kyrgyz citizens were jailed for trying to
sell 110 grams of the isotope cesium-137 (one of the radioactive
byproducts released in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident), which
could have been used to create a "dirty bomb".
quantity of 15 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium-235 (enough to
create small fissile device) was discovered in Sanliurfa, Turkey.
The material was hidden under the seat of a taxi.
There will be obstacles for terrorists to overcome before a
working fissile nuclear device is created, but with rogue Islamist
states such as Iran close to preparing their own weapons grade HEU,
such a scenario may be closer than we care to acknowledge.
Pakistan was the
join the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism
and it maintains that its nuclear facilities are fully secured.
However, should Pakistan fall to a Talibanized regime, the
likelihood of such materials being sold or exported becomes high.
Another scenario discussed by Bunn and Bunn in 2002 was an attack
upon an existing nuclear facility. Even if such an attack took
place at a depot for spent nuclear fuel, depriving it of its
water-cooling systems, a subsequent conflagration (if it reached
900 degrees Celsius) could cause a zirconium fire, leading to the
release of radioactive cesium isotopes.
There have already been two thwarted attempts by Islamists to
sabotage the nuclear research facility at Lucas Heights in Sydney,
Australia, which could similarly lead to the release of isotopes
such as those released at Chernobyl (cesium-134 and -137, and
iodine-131). When this nuclear accident occurred in the Ukraine on
April 26, 1986, these isotopes were carried 1,300 miles westward
to north Wales. Here rain caused sheep-grazing land to be
contaminated with isotopes of cesium which still remain two
. The main
regional economy of lamb production was devastated.
In Part Two, I will discuss the (perhaps more likely) scenario of
an attack by an RDD or "dirty bomb". I will also analyze the
findings of various studies which detail the responses to, and
likely outcomes of, attacks by both fissile devices and RDDs.