On 11 September, terrorists hijacked four US jetliners, crashing two into the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York City, one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and one in Pennsylvania. In the aftermath of 11 September, the question of nuclear terrorism became a serious international concern. The following are the top five nuclear terrorism related events of 2001.
1. In exercises designed to test security, US Army and Navy Teams successfully penetrate nuclear facilities and obtain nuclear materials. The US takes legislative measures to increase security at and around nuclear facilities.
2. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf orders an emergency redeployment of the country’s nuclear arsenal to at least six secret new locations.
3. The UK Ministry of Defense publishes details about the transport of nuclear weapons and plutonium throughout the country on the Ministry of Defense website, raising controversy over offering potential terrorists a guide to the rail lines, roads and airports used for nuclear materials.
4. As a precaution against suicide attacks, France increases the number of surface-to-air missiles near La Hague, Europe’s largest nuclear waste reprocessing plant.
5. Weapons experts testify to attendees of the International Atomic Energy Agency conference in Vienna, Austria that terrorists could use a nuclear device.
1. US Nuclear Facilities Fail Security Drills
A report released in October by a non-governmental watchdog organization, Project on Government Oversight (POGO), found that the ten US nuclear weapons research and production facilities are vulnerable to a terrorist attack and failed about half of recent security drills. In exercises designed to test security, US Army and Navy teams successfully penetrated nuclear facilities and obtained nuclear materials. US government security regulations require that nuclear facilities defend themselves against the theft of nuclear materials by terrorists or through sabotage. According to Dannielle Brian, POGO Director, the repeated security breaches are serious cause for concern because Department of Energy employees were warned before each security exercise but still failed to stop the would-be terrorists in more than half the drills.
Nine of the ten weapons facilities are within 100 miles of cities with more than 75,000 people. Eight of the ten weapons facilities contain a total of 33.5 metric tons of plutonium. It only takes a few pounds of plutonium to create a nuclear bomb. Regarding security at the nuclear weapons facilities, Brian stated that no one thought it really mattered until 11 September. A spokesperson from the National Nuclear Security Administration declined to comment on the report. The full report can be accessed online at POGO’s website http://www.pogo.org/.
In related news, Representative Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) introduced legislation on 14 November requiring the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to have supplies of potassium iodide within 200 miles of each of the 103 operating nuclear power plants in the US. If passed, the bill would also require the government commission to stock potassium iodide at individual homes and public facilities within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant. Potassium iodide has been shown to protect the body’s thyroid gland from diseases related to radiation exposure and must be taken within several hours after exposure to be effective.
In addition, Markey is urging US lawmakers to pass measures that would increase security at nuclear power plants in the wake of the 11 September events. Markey stated, “In this new era of terrorism, in which the threat of an intentional release of radioactivity can no longer be ignored, we should waste no more time.”
On 15 November, US Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York) and Harry Reid (D-Nevada) announced that they will introduce legislation to federalize security guards at the 103 nuclear power plants across the US. Currently, nuclear power plant operators hire private guards. The guards carry weapons, but they do not have police power. Since the events of 11 September, local police, and state police and, in some states, National Guard troops have augmented security at the nation’s nuclear power plants.
While conservatives in the Senate will likely object to federalizing guards, according to Senator Clinton, “We can no longer leave the security at our nation’s nuclear power plants to chance.” Senator Reid noted that Congress just agreed to federalize passenger and baggage screeners at airports. He stated, “It’s time we focus the same energy to improve safety at nuclear power plants.”
2. Pakistan Restructures Nuclear Arsenal and Military to Avoid Nuclear Terrorism
On 10 November, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf ordered an emergency redeployment of the country’s nuclear arsenal to at least six secret new locations. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal was moved for fear of theft or strikes against the country’s nuclear facilities and also to remove its nuclear arsenal from bases that might be used by the US.
Musharraf also reorganized military oversight of the nuclear forces in the weeks after joining the US in its campaign against terrorism in Afghanistan. On 7 October, Musharraf created the new Strategic Planning Division, headed by a three-star general to oversee operations as part of a top military and intelligence restructuring designed to marginalize officers considered too sympathetic to the Taliban and other extremist factions. General Khalid Kidwai is now the director of operational security for the country’s nuclear sites and weapons and he answers directly to Musharraf.
Reports from the US Central Intelligence Agency and other sources have stated that Pakistan stores its nuclear warheads and missiles separately but it is unknown whether in the emergency conditions of the months following the 11 September events whether the equipment was repositioned for easier assembly. Intelligence sources believe that Pakistan has between 30-40 warheads and it has test-fired intermediate range ballistic missiles. US officials fear that if Musharraf is assassinated or ousted in a military coup, extremists could gain control of the Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal or share knowledge about them with hostile organizations or regimes.
3. UK Ministry of Defense Releases Details of Nuclear Transports Despite Threat Posed by Nuclear Terrorism
The UK Ministry of Defense published details about the transport of nuclear weapons and plutonium throughout the country on the Ministry of Defense website in November intended to assist police, fire brigades and city councils in drafting emergency plans in case of an accident. The Ministry of Defense has received criticism for the report entitled “Defence Nuclear Materials Transport Contingency Arrangements,” because opponents argue that the report could offer potential terrorists a guide to the rail lines, roads and airports used for nuclear materials. It also raised controversy in light of Home Secretary David Blunkett’s attempts to prevent nuclear terrorism. The report challenges one of Secretary Blunkett’s proposed measures that makes it an offense punishable by seven years in jail to disclose any information that “might prejudice the security of any nuclear site or of any nuclear material.”
The report details security for nuclear convoys. It also lists UK military nuclear reactor factories and test sites and for the first time where “special nuclear materials” such as weapons-grade uranium and plutonium would travel. In addition, the publication reveals that a warhead is unstable if heated. According to the report, “If weapon is jetting (flames under pressure) explosion may be imminent, debris may be scattered within 600 m[eter] radius.”
Stewart Kemp, Secretary of the Nuclear Free Local Authorities stated, “If the government judges that there is an increased terrorist threat then the right thing to do is to stop the transports altogether.”
The full report can be obtained online at http://www.mod.uk/index.php3?page=2474.
4. France Deploys Missiles to Defend Nuclear Waste Reprocessing Plant
As a precaution against suicide attacks, France increased the number of surface-to-air missiles near La Hague, Europe’s largest nuclear waste reprocessing plant in November. In October, the French Defense Ministry announced that radar systems capable of detecting low-flying planes and surface-to-air missiles had been positioned at La Hague as well as at Il Longue, a military base for nuclear submarines off the Brittany coast in northwest France.
A top regional official stated that the deployment of surface-to-air missiles was placed a mile from the plant and the measure was purely precautionary in light of the events of 11 September in the US.
5. IAEA Calls for Global Nuclear Security Standards to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism
Weapons experts told attendees of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conference in Vienna, Austria on 2 November that terrorists could use a nuclear device. Speakers at the conference suggested that western countries, in particular the US, should accelerate efforts to protect nuclear materials that could, if they haven’t already, fall into the hands of terrorists. Morten Bremer Maerli, a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of International Affaris, stated, “The only strategy is to protect the material where it is, but this kind of implementation strategy doesn’t exist.”
Maerli and other experts testified to a shocking lack of security and control to prevent the theft or purchase of highly enriched uranium and plutonium from nuclear facilities in many countries, especially Russia. Since 1993, the IAEA has reported 175 cases of nuclear materials trafficking, including 18 cases involving small amounts of highly enriched uranium or plutonium. In these cases, law enforcement agencies seized the materials, but records at the facilities from which the materials were stolen, most of them Russian, did not show anything missing. According to Matthew Bunn, Assistant Director of the Science, Technology and Public Policy Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, up to 60 percent of nuclear material remains inadequately secured in Russia.
Mohamed ElBaradei, IAEA Director General, stated “The controls on nuclear material and radioactive sources are uneven. Security is as good as its weakest link and loose nuclear material in any country is a potential threat to the entire world.” According to ElBaradei, in the wake of the 11 September events, the IAEA has expanded its concerns about nuclear materials getting into clandestine weapons programs, not only in states that sponsor terrorism, but also into the hands of extremist groups.
ElBaradei called for international unity to create universal minimum security standards for nuclear plants and materials. Currently, standards are largely left to individual countries. The IAEA also requested $30 million to $50 million to step up safety work in securing nuclear materials globally.