Experts say prospect highly unlikely
Harvard researcher Matthew Bunn claims the Islamic State may engage in three different kinds of nuclear or radiological terrorism in the near future, according to the Express.
Bunn warns IS may attack a nuclear facility and blow it up, explode a “dirty bomb,” or somehow develop a nuclear bomb and detonate it.
“Making a crude nuclear bomb would not be easy, but is potentially within the capabilities of a technically sophisticated terrorist group, as numerous government studies have confirmed,” the report states.
The release of Bunn’s Managing the Atom report coincides with the Nuclear Security Summit 2016 to be held today in Washington.
“We cannot afford to wait for an act of nuclear terrorism before working together to collectively improve our nuclear security culture, share our best practices, and raise our standards for nuclear security,” explains the NSS website.
Government studies and Bunn’s research do not take into account a number of problems standing in the way of an Islamic State bomb, most notably the unavailability of the fissile material required. The common explanation is the material will be taken from Russia’s inventory of decommissioned warheads.
“If that were easy, one would have already gone missing,” writes Steve Chapman. “Besides, those devices are probably no longer a danger, since weapons that are not scrupulously maintained (as those have not been) quickly become what one expert calls ‘radioactive scrap metal.’ If terrorists were able to steal a Pakistani bomb, they would still have to defeat the arming codes and other safeguards designed to prevent unauthorized use.”
But even if terrorists managed to get their hands on fissile material or produced their own with centrifuges—the relatively modern state of Iran has reportedly experienced major issues doing this—building a functioning bomb is “not something you can gin up with spare parts and power tools in your garage.” It requires people with specialized skills and a safe haven for equipment.
Instead of building a full-fledged nuke authorities anticipate terrorists will use a dirty bomb made of radiological materials pilfered from hospitals, research facilities, industrial activities, and construction sites, or they will attack a power plant and trigger a nuclear meltdown.
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The latter scenario was floated after the March 22 bomb attacks at a Brussels airport and on a metro transport, which killed 35 people and injured more than 300. It was also reported the Paris attackers planned to attack a nuclear plant after a video-recording of a high-ranking Belgian nuclear official was discovered in the apartment of one of the suspected terrorists.
Following the discovery authorities warned the plan may have been to kidnap a scientist, force him to help the terrorists break into a nuclear facility and steal radioactive material to build a dirty bomb.
“People have a view of there being all this nuclear material just floating around at nuclear power plants and people being able to steal them,” James Acton, a director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told US News & World Report.
Nuclear fuel is not very radioactive before it is used and would need to be enriched. The other option would be to steal nuclear waste, which is described as “self-protecting” because it is so highly radioactive it would kill anybody who tried to steal it. “Fuel bundles are enormous. The idea that terrorists are going to get their hands on spent nuclear fuel is very, very unlikely,” Acton said.
It would be more logical to attack a nuclear facility and trigger a nuclear meltdown. However, this would take more than one bomb and knowledge of how the plant works, making success highly unlikely for untrained terrorists.
Power plants are built with redundancies and “concentric circles of probability” to prevent nuclear meltdowns, according to William Tobey, a deputy administrator at the National Nuclear Security Administration from 2006 to 2009.
Terrorists are far more successful when they launch conventional attacks with small bombs and automatic weapons. A radiological attack would certainly have a more pronounced psychological effect than a conventional terrorist attack, but the technical and logistical aspects make it unlikely.
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The Nuclear Security Summit is an attempt to further sensationalize terrorism and keep attention tightly focused on the war on terror and enhance the “immense military establishment and a large arms industry” President Eisenhower warned about in January, 1961.