NYT on assessing Risks, Chemical, Biological, Even Nuclear (+ comments by Russell D. Hoffman written November 1st, 2001)
Subject: Re: Assessing Risks, Chemical, Biological, Even Nuclear
To: Editor, NY Times <email@example.com>
From: Russell Hoffman, Concerned Citizen
Re: Your article in today's paper (shown below)
Date: November 1st, 2001
To The Editor:
How come your seemingly complete article (shown below) has completely ignored what is probably the most likely next attack -- an attack on one or more of our nuclear power plants?
I recently read that terrorists have even been studying how to take over a control room and start a meltdown. I've read that UA Flight 93 may have been heading for Three Mile Island. I've read that terrorists have threatened to attack a nuclear power plant for years. But your article discusses none of these things, although the reports are coming in from respected sources such as the Guardian of London.
A grenade in the Spent Fuel Pool would probably suffice to kill tens of thousands of people immediately and hundreds of thousands over time. An airplane smashed into a waste tank at Hanford could wipe out the Northwest corner of America. Smashed into Indian Point, it could wipe out New England.
A couple of hang-gliding suicide bombers would probably be enough to damage a plant severely enough to cause a meltdown and subsequent radiological release. The terrorists obviously could attack a nuke with a huge force -- 50 people would be unstoppable by any force at any nuclear power plant in America (except, presumably, the ones in the six states which have called out the National Guard). The terrorists got 19 people together to carry out their last attack. Nineteen would probably be enough to take over a nuclear power plant, considering that the plants fail about 50% of the test security breeches, and those tests used mock forces of only a few intruders.
I doubt any of the articles' writers -- William J. Broad, Stephen Engelberg or James Glanz -- are qualified to write about the dangers from an attack on a nuclear power plant, because if they were, I'm sure they would have. It's too important to ignore, yet you've done so.
But not to worry -- my friends and I have been writing plenty about it and your writers can start getting up to speed here:
P.O. Box 1936
Carlsbad, CA 92018
November 1, 2001
Assessing Risks, Chemical, Biological, Even Nuclear
This article was reported and written by William J. Broad, Stephen
Engelberg and James Glanz.
Since being jolted by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the
persistent, mysterious spread of anthrax, the government has been
struggling to discern what weapon, if any, might be aimed at the nation
Government analysts have been forced into broad agreement that the threat
of terrorists wielding mass-casualty weapons — chemical, biological or
even nuclear — is more serious than they had believed. At the same time,
they say a widespread attack with any of these sophisticated weapons would
be difficult to achieve.
But there is little precision behind these judgments, and officials
acknowledge that the next attack by Al Qaeda or some other group could
well involve conventional weapons — truck or car bombs.
The assessment of threats, the effort by government analysts to forecast
the behavior of unseen enemies, even unknown ones, is at best an imprecise
art that depends largely on the quality of the intelligence from which it
is drawn. Many agencies do it, and they often disagree.
"Can we assess threats? Yes, we can and we've done so in the past. We've
figured out things that people might try do to us and closed them off,"
said Kenneth M. Pollack, deputy director of national security studies at
the Council on Foreign Relations and a former official at the Central
Intelligence Agency. "But ultimately, when you have a very creative group
of people like Al Qaeda, they are capable of surprising us."
"We may come up with a thousand scenarios of what they can do to us," Mr.
Pollack said. "But the only one that matters is the one that the Al Qaeda
person comes up with."
Nonetheless, a host of officials, from the intelligence agency to the
Federal Bureau of Investigation to the Pentagon, are trying to deliver the
analysis that would help both fend off attacks in the near future and
defend against longer-term threats.
The possibilities are almost limitless. The Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult
tried several attacks with germ weapons, including anthrax, before turning
to the nerve gas sarin, which they released in the Tokyo subways in 1995,
Experts say that chemical weapons offer terrorist groups a chance to
inflict mass casualties and spread panic, much as the release of a small
amount of anthrax has stirred panic among a jittery public.
John Bolton, the State Department's top arms control official, told
reporters that he was significantly more concerned about the possibility
of nuclear, chemical or biological attack since Sept. 11.
A group that would ram airplanes into the World Trade Center, he said, was
"not going to be deterred by anything."
"Had these people had ballistic missile technology, there is not the
slightest doubt in my mind that they would have used it," Mr. Bolton said.
Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda group is believed to have what one senior
Pentagon official recently termed a "crude chemical and possibly
biological capability." The group also attempted to obtain nuclear
materials in the mid-1990's. That effort was not successful, but officials
viewed it as a clear indication of Mr. bin Laden's intentions.
The quest to imagine the unimaginable can have side effects. Richard K.
Betts, a Columbia University professor who served on the National
Commission on Terrorism, noted that the practitioners of threat assessment
can produce a haze of lurking dangers.
"Which of the three dozen `out of the box ideas' do you decide to make the
focus?" Professor Betts asked.
The terrorism commission, which produced its report in June 2000, reviewed
the government's pre-Sept. 11 assessments of the terrorist threat.
Professor Betts and others on the commission said they found much that
could be improved with some low-cost steps.
"You can keep better track of who is ordering questionable biological
agents," he said. "You can keep track of what foreigners are in this
country working in sensitive industries."
There are, of course, limits to what can be accomplished with better
threat assessment. "You can invest more to find out what kinds of threats
are developing, but you're talking for the most part about reducing the
odds at the margins," Professor Betts said. But in the business of
forecasting terrorist threats, he said, even that would be valuable.
All germ weapons are not created equal. Some are like sticks of dynamite —
deadly if exploded in a crowd but otherwise limited in destructive power.
Some can spread like fire through a dry forest. Most are hard to make, use
and control, which limits their appeal to terrorists.
The United States and the Soviet Union, in their forsaken programs to make
germ weapons, focused their bulk production of deadly biological agents on
10 kinds of bacteria, viruses and toxins.
Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists 36 classes of
"select agents" — potential weapons whose transfer in the scientific and
medical communities is regulated to keep them out of unfriendly hands.
There are 13 viruses, 7 bacteria, 3 rickettsiae (micro-organisms that have
traits common to both bacteria and viruses), 1 fungus and 12 biological
Of these, experts agree, the smallpox virus is in a class by itself.
Ancient and vicious, the virus killed more people over the ages than any
other infectious disease, up to a half billion in the 20th century alone.
It is highly contagious and can spread rapidly.
In one of the great triumphs in public health, smallpox was eliminated
from the world in 1980, and today, stocks of the virus are known to exist
only in the United States and Russia. But experts suspect its presence in
Because vaccination for smallpox has been abandoned and immunity is not
lifelong, most people today are believed to be vulnerable to the disease.
"It's my personal nightmare," said Al Zelicoff, a physician and smallpox
specialist at the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M.
Anthrax bacteria, while more deadly, must be formed into tiny particles of
just the right size to penetrate deep into a person's lungs. But even when
infection sets in, the disease cannot pass from person to person.
Because anthrax cases are so rare in developed countries, much about it
remains unknown. Even now, doctors are revising treatment regimens and
mortality estimates based on the experiences of anthrax patients in the
recent outbreaks in the United States.
Among the other potential biological weapons are these:
PLAGUE: The contagious and often fatal bacterial disease produces high
fevers, headaches, glandular swelling and pneumonia.
BOTULINUM: A toxin that is the most poisonous compound known to science,
it paralyzes muscles and lungs and kills quickly by suffocation.
Q FEVER: The relatively mild disease can produce crippling chills,
coughing, headaches, hallucinations and fevers up to 104 degrees.
EASTERN EQUINE ENCEPHALITIS: It causes fever, headaches and seizures and
is fatal in up to 70 percent of cases.
YELLOW FEVER: Characterized by chills, muscle pain, stomach bleeding, dark
vomit, and yellow skin due to liver failure and bile accumulation, the
mortality rate is up to 10 percent.
MARBURG VIRUS: One of the bleeding diseases, like Ebola, it causes high
fevers and kills one in four victims.
Despite a history going back ages, and despite occasional grim successes,
germ weapons have never played decisive roles in warfare or terrorism. One
reason is that it is difficult to acquire and use the complicated gear
needed to make and scatter deadly pathogens. Another is the risk of a
boomerang effect in which attacker becomes victim.
With the recent anthrax outbreaks, experts have had to recalculate their
assessment of the threat of widespread biological terrorism. Many still
feel that such an attack would be difficult to mount.
"There is an ocean of difference between learning how to steer a jetliner
into a building and overcoming the technical hurdles in the dispersal of a
biological agent to cause mass casualties," said Dr. Amy E. Smithson, an
expert on biological and chemical weapons at the Henry L. Stimson Center,
a private group in Washington.
The Congressional investigators of the General Accounting Office, in a
September 1999 report, looked at a dozen biological agents and found that
their use by terrorists was mostly possible or potential — not likely. For
instance, it said bleeding disease agents like Marburg were unlikely "due
to difficulty in acquiring pathogen, safety considerations and relative
With smallpox, the investigators found that its use was questionable "due
to limited access to the pathogen," even while agreeing that an outbreak
would have devastating effects.
Many experts contend that no state possessing the virus would give it to a
terrorist because of the danger of starting a global epidemic that would
kill indiscriminately, especially in the developing world.
"Societies that harbor terrorists might be at greater risk than we are,"
said a top federal adviser on biological terrorism who spoke on the
condition of anonymity.
Dr. Brad Roberts, a terrorism expert at the Institute for Defense
Analyses, a private group in Alexandria, Va., that advises the Pentagon,
said that doing careful threat assessments was almost impossible because
of the lack of concrete information about terrorist capabilities, and that
in that vacuum appraisals have often tended to be alarmist.
"This is not a classic military or criminal problem, which is to say we
can't possibly see everything we need to see to know what the threat is,"
Dr. Roberts said. "All we can see is a catalog of vulnerabilities so long
as to be overwhelming."
Chemical weapons are typically less likely than germ weapons to cause
widespread death and illness, but experts say they are easier to make and
deploy. For that reason, the experts regard them as worrisome.
Still, as with germ weapons, obtaining the requisite raw materials can be
difficult, as is pulling off successful attacks. Fickle winds can easily
blow toxic mists off target.
Because of the many potential snags, some experts see terrorist strikes on
chemical plants and transportation links as an easier way to release
noxious clouds that could injure or kill many people.
Dr. Smithson of the Stimson Center recently told a subcommittee of the
Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs that roughly 850,000 American
facilities, many in or near major cities, use hazardous or extremely
"My main chemical terrorism concern relates to the possible sabotage of
these industrial facilities," Dr. Smithson said, adding that new
safeguards and precautions were attempting to deal with that danger.
But some potential ingredients for chemical weapons are available on the
commercial market, avoiding the need to make them. Chlorine, phosgene and
hydrogen cyanide are examples, all noxious if inhaled but limited in
killing power. Small doses tend to produce no effects or nausea. Medium
doses produce dizziness. Large doses can end in convulsions and death.
Far more deadly are nerve agents, small amounts of which can penetrate the
skin or lungs to disrupt the body's nervous system and stop breathing.
They are also technically more difficult for terrorists to acquire or
make, the General Accounting Office pointed out in its 1999 study.
Examples are tabun, the first nerve agent ever produced; sarin, which the
Aum Shinrikyo cult used in 1995; and soman, a colorless liquid with a
fruity smell. VX gas, which Saddam Hussein of Iraq made in large
quantities, is deadly but very hard to synthesize.
The Congressional investigators noted in their 1999 study that developing
nerve agents requires multiple precursor chemicals and several
manufacturing steps, some of them difficult and hazardous.
Moreover, the Congressional investigators said, "careful temperature
control, cooling of the vessel, heating to complete chemical reactions,
and distillation could be technically infeasible for terrorists without a
sophisticated laboratory infrastructure."
Experts agree that spreading a chemical agent in a closed environment,
such as a subway, would be most effective. Outdoor dissemination is much
harder. Attacks can be disrupted by sunlight, moisture and wind, and some
chemical agents are easily evaporated or diluted. As a result, experts
agree that it is generally hard to use chemical agents outdoors with
Nuclear terrorism may represent the darkest fear of all, simply because of
the degree of destruction and huge number of casualties that are possible.
After Sept. 11, experts began taking a fresh look at studies that largely
ruled out the possibility that terrorists could obtain a nuclear device,
said David Albright, an expert on nuclear proliferation who is president
of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, a
nonprofit organization that works against the spread of nuclear weaponry.
"You'd always reach the point where you say, yes, a terrorist could
theoretically do it," Mr. Albright said. "And you'd look at the terrorists
and say `Nah, they're not capable or they don't want to.' That's what's
changed. Al Qaeda could do it, and they want to."
Advances in nuclear weapon design have made bombs simpler to build. But
even so, any terrorist group attempting a nuclear attack would face major
Among those obstacles are a lack of an industrial base available to
terrorist groups that would enable the fashioning of a weapon, and a
reluctance on the part of any host country to risk nuclear retaliation.
And if terrorists did obtain a nuclear device, the United States has
programs to detect and disarm any weapon within its borders.
Given the difficulties involved in building a nuclear device, a terrorist
would probably prefer to buy or steal a complete weapon. One might be
obtained from a rogue scientist in a nuclear-armed nation like Pakistan or
If that is not possible, then obtaining a relatively pure form of the
fissionable material at the heart of a nuclear weapon is a more
complicated possibility that would require building the rest of the
weapon. Obtaining lower-grade material and refining it would be still more
Experts no longer believe that getting a complete weapon is impossible.
Pakistan has tested nuclear weapons, probably Hiroshima-size bombs fueled
by enriched uranium, and the country's military and intelligence services
are salted with sympathizers of the Taliban. Pakistan recently arrested
three of its senior nuclear scientists because of concerns over possible
connections with the Taliban.
The Hiroshima bomb had the explosive equivalent of 15,000 tons of TNT.
Robert S. Norris, a researcher and analyst at the Natural Resources
Defense Council, said the Pakistani weapon is thought to weigh around
1,500 pounds and be far from compact. "It's your basic starter model," Mr.
Russia is believed to have developed extremely small nuclear weapons —
"suitcase" bombs — probably with yields equivalent to 1,000 tons of TNT or
fewer. If those weapons were stolen or bought, Mr. Norris said, nuclear
experts from the country of origin may be needed to detonate them.
Another possibility would be to obtain the grapefruitlike core of uranium
from, say, the Pakistanis, which would be easier to smuggle out of the
country than an entire bomb. It is no longer out of the question that Al
Qaeda could somehow build the rest of the bomb, Mr. Albright said.
He said that if the terrorists could not get the core of a bomb, they
might consider obtaining spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors in any
number of countries. Concentrating the fissionable uranium from those rods
would be a monumental task, but separating plutonium, which can also fuel
a nuclear weapon, is just within the realm of possibility, Mr. Albright
"It's possible they could build a crude, plutonium enrichment plant," Mr.
Over the years, countries have come up with simpler designs for nuclear
weapons, making it much more likely that a shoestring operation inside
Afghanistan could build one, Mr. Albright said.
Except for the suitcase bomb, any one of those weapons would probably have
to be brought to the United States in a ship, perhaps hidden in a
container on a freighter. The bombs could fit into a large van and, if
exploded in downtown Manhattan, might cause tens of thousands to a hundred
thousand deaths, Mr. Albright said.
A cruder but simpler way to use radioactive materials as a weapon would be
to construct a radiological bomb, sometimes called a dirty bomb. The idea
is to kill and terrorize with radiation alone, by packing radioactive
material around an ordinary explosive and detonating it above a city.
The radioactive material could spread as a dust emanating from the
explosion, falling on a wide area of a city, perhaps killing hundreds and
requiring a cleanup that could run to billions of dollars. Without a
cleanup, the material would cling to surfaces and contaminate the area for
These dirty bombs are much easier to engineer than nuclear bombs. But
because of the known sympathies of many Pakistanis for Al Qaeda, one
threat easily stands out, said Dr. Arjun Makhijani, president of the
Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Md.
"There's so many vulnerabilities," Dr. Makhijani said, but "the most
immediate danger relates to Pakistani nuclear weapons."
The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders . . . All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism Hermann Goering
For it isn't enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn't enough to believe in it. One must work at it. ----Eleanor Roosevelt
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