From: "Russell D. Hoffman" <>
Subject: Re: FW: nuclear nightmares
Hello readers,

This New York Times Magazine article is long but well worth reading.  However, the author still manages to minimize the dangers from nuclear terrorism by misunderstanding Low Level Radiation.  He apparently doesn't know that the full spectrum of health effects (cancers, leukemias, birth defects) happens at ANY dose level.  Only the RATE of these effects changes (goes down) as the dose goes down.  The dose is harmless only if YOU are expendable.  Frank von Hipple's math seems obtuse at best, as well.  1% added to 20% becomes 21%, not 20.1%.  His question, "would you abandon a city just for that?" become an order of magnitude more relevant, and it's a sad world where the answer is "no". -- rdh


Nuclear Nightmares New York Times Magazine, 2.5.26

Not If But When

Everybody who spends much time thinking about nuclear terrorism can give you
a scenario, something diabolical and, theoretically, doable. Michael A.
Levi, a researcher at the Federation of American Scientists, imagines a
homemade nuclear explosive device detonated inside a truck passing through
one of the tunnels into Manhattan. The blast would crater portions of the
New York skyline, barbecue thousands of people instantly, condemn thousands
more to a horrible death from radiation sickness and -- by virtue of being
underground -- would vaporize many tons of concrete and dirt and river water
into an enduring cloud of lethal fallout. Vladimir Shikalov, a Russian
nuclear physicist who helped clean up after the 1986 Chernobyl accident,
envisioned for me an attack involving highly radioactive cesium-137 loaded
into some kind of homemade spraying device, and a target that sounded
particularly unsettling when proposed across a Moscow kitchen table --
Disneyland. In this case, the human toll would be much less ghastly, but the
panic that would result from contaminating the Magic Kingdom with a modest
amount of cesium -- Shikalov held up his teacup to illustrate how much --
would probably shut the place down for good and constitute a staggering
strike at Americans' sense of innocence. Shikalov, a nuclear enthusiast who
thinks most people are ridiculously squeamish about radiation, added that
personally he would still be happy to visit Disneyland after the terrorists
struck, although he would pack his own food and drink and destroy his
clothing afterward.

Another Russian, Dmitry Borisov, a former official of his country's atomic
energy ministry, conjured a suicidal pilot. (Suicidal pilots, for obvious
reasons, figure frequently in these fantasies.) In Borisov's scenario, the
hijacker dive-bombs an Aeroflot jetliner into the Kurchatov Institute, an
atomic research center in a gentrifying neighborhood of Moscow, which I had
just visited the day before our conversation. The facility contains 26
nuclear reactors of various sizes and a huge accumulation of radioactive
material. The effect would probably be measured more in property values than
in body bags, but some people say the same about Chernobyl.

Maybe it is a way to tame a fearsome subject by Hollywoodizing it, or maybe
it is a way to drive home the dreadful stakes in the arid-sounding business
of nonproliferation, but in several weeks of talking to specialists here and
in Russia about the threats an amateur evildoer might pose to the homeland,
I found an unnerving abundance of such morbid creativity. I heard a
physicist wonder whether a suicide bomber with a pacemaker would constitute
an effective radiation weapon. (I'm a little ashamed to say I checked that
one, and the answer is no, since pacemakers powered by plutonium have not
been implanted for the past 20 years.) I have had people theorize about
whether hijackers who took over a nuclear research laboratory could
improvise an actual nuclear explosion on the spot. (Expert opinions differ,
but it's very unlikely.) I've been instructed how to disperse plutonium into
the ventilation system of an office building.

The realistic threats settle into two broad categories. The less likely but
far more devastating is an actual nuclear explosion, a great hole blown in
the heart of New York or Washington, followed by a toxic fog of radiation.
This could be produced by a black-market nuclear warhead procured from an
existing arsenal. Russia is the favorite hypothetical source, although
Pakistan, which has a program built on shady middlemen and covert
operations, should not be overlooked. Or the explosive could be a homemade
device, lower in yield than a factory nuke but still creating great carnage.

The second category is a radiological attack, contaminating a public place
with radioactive material by packing it with conventional explosives in a
''dirty bomb'' by dispersing it into the air or water or by sabotaging a
nuclear facility. By comparison with the task of creating nuclear fission,
some of these schemes would be almost childishly simple, although the
consequences would be less horrifying: a panicky evacuation, a gradual
increase in cancer rates, a staggeringly expensive cleanup, possibly the
need to demolish whole neighborhoods. Al Qaeda has claimed to have access to
dirty bombs, which is unverified but entirely plausible, given that the
makings are easily gettable.

Nothing is really new about these perils. The means to inflict nuclear harm
on America have been available to rogues for a long time. Serious studies of
the threat of nuclear terror date back to the 1970's. American programs to
keep Russian nuclear ingredients from falling into murderous hands -- one of
the subjects high on the agenda in President Bush's meetings in Moscow this
weekend -- were hatched soon after the Soviet Union disintegrated a decade
ago. When terrorists get around to trying their first nuclear assault, as
you can be sure they will, there will be plenty of people entitled to say I
told you so.

All Sept. 11 did was turn a theoretical possibility into a felt danger. All
it did was supply a credible cast of characters who hate us so much they
would thrill to the prospect of actually doing it -- and, most important in
rethinking the probabilities, would be happy to die in the effort. All it
did was give our nightmares legs.

And of the many nightmares animated by the attacks, this is the one with
pride of place in our experience and literature -- and, we know from his own
lips, in Osama bin Laden's aspirations. In February, Tom Ridge, the Bush
administration's homeland security chief, visited The Times for a
conversation, and at the end someone asked, given all the things he had to
worry about -- hijacked airliners, anthrax in the mail, smallpox, germs in
crop-dusters -- what did he worry about most? He cupped his hands
prayerfully and pressed his fingertips to his lips.

''Nuclear,'' he said simply.

My assignment here was to stare at that fear and inventory the
possibilities. How afraid should we be, and what of, exactly? I'll tell you
at the outset, this was not one of those exercises in which weighing the
fears and assigning them probabilities laid them to rest. I'm not evacuating
Manhattan, but neither am I sleeping quite as soundly. As I was writing this
early one Saturday in April, the floor began to rumble and my desk lamp
wobbled precariously. Although I grew up on the San Andreas Fault, the fact
that New York was experiencing an earthquake was only my second thought.

The best reason for thinking it won't happen is that it hasn't happened yet,
and that is terrible logic. The problem is not so much that we are not doing
enough to prevent a terrorist from turning our atomic knowledge against us
(although we are not). The problem is that there may be no such thing as

25,000 Warheads, and It Only Takes One

My few actual encounters with the Russian nuclear arsenal are all associated
with Thomas Cochran. Cochran, a physicist with a Tennessee lilt and a sense
of showmanship, is the director of nuclear issues for the Natural Resources
Defense Council, which promotes environmental protection and arms control.
In 1989, when glasnost was in flower, Cochran persuaded the Soviet Union to
open some of its most secret nuclear venues to a roadshow of American
scientists and congressmen and invited along a couple of reporters. We
visited a Soviet missile cruiser bobbing in the Black Sea and drank vodka
with physicists and engineers in the secret city where the Soviets first
produced plutonium for weapons.

Not long ago Cochran took me cruising through the Russian nuclear stockpile
again, this time digitally. The days of glasnost theatrics are past, and
this is now the only way an outsider can get close to the places where
Russians store and deploy their nuclear weapons. On his office computer in
Washington, Cochran has installed a detailed United States military map of
Russia and superimposed upon it high-resolution satellite photographs. We
spent part of a morning mouse-clicking from missile-launch site to submarine
base, zooming in like voyeurs and contemplating the possibility that a
terrorist could figure out how to steal a nuclear warhead from one of these

''Here are the bunkers,'' Cochran said, enlarging an area the size of a
football stadium holding a half-dozen elongated igloos. We were hovering
over a site called Zhukovka, in western Russia. We were pleased to see it
did not look ripe for a hijacking.

''You see the bunkers are fenced, and then the whole thing is fenced
again,'' Cochran said. ''Just outside you can see barracks and a rifle range
for the guard. These would be troops of the 12th Main Directorate.
Somebody's not going to walk off the street and get a Russian weapon out of
this particular storage area.''

In the popular culture, nuclear terror begins with the theft of a nuclear
weapon. Why build one when so many are lying around for the taking? And
stealing tends to make better drama than engineering. Thus the stolen nuke
has been a staple in the literature at least since 1961, when Ian Fleming
published ''Thunderball,'' in which the malevolent Spectre (the Special
Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, a
strictly mercenary and more technologically sophisticated precursor to al
Qaeda) pilfers a pair of atom bombs from a crashed NATO aircraft. In the
movie version of Tom Clancy's thriller ''The Sum of All Fears,'' due in
theaters this week, neo-Nazis get their hands on a mislaid Israeli nuke, and
viewers will get to see Baltimore blasted to oblivion.

Eight countries are known to have nuclear weapons -- the
United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, India,
Pakistan and Israel. David Albright, a nuclear-weapons
expert and president of the Institute for Science and
International Security, points out that Pakistan's program
in particular was built almost entirely through black
markets and industrial espionage, aimed at circumventing
Western export controls. Defeating the discipline of
nuclear nonproliferation is ingrained in the culture.
Disaffected individuals in Pakistan (which, remember, was
intimate with the Taliban) would have no trouble finding
the illicit channels or the rationalization for diverting
materials, expertise -- even, conceivably, a warhead.

But the mall of horrors is Russia, because it currently maintains something
like 15,000 of the world's (very roughly) 25,000 nuclear warheads, ranging
in destructive power from about 500 kilotons, which could kill a million
people, down to the one-kiloton land mines that would be enough to make much
of Manhattan uninhabitable. Russia is a country with sloppy accounting, a
disgruntled military, an audacious black market and indigenous terrorists.

There is anecdotal reason to worry. Gen. Igor Valynkin, commander of the
12th Main Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Russian
military sector in charge of all nuclear weapons outside the Navy, said
recently that twice in the past year terrorist groups were caught casing
Russian weapons-storage facilities. But it's hard to know how seriously to
take this. When I made the rounds of nuclear experts in Russia earlier this
year, many were skeptical of these near-miss anecdotes, saying the security
forces tend to exaggerate such incidents to dramatize their own prowess (the
culprits are always caught) and enhance their budgets. On the whole, Russian
and American military experts sound not very alarmed about the vulnerability
of Russia's nuclear warheads. They say Russia takes these weapons quite
seriously, accounts for them rigorously and guards them carefully. There is
no confirmed case of a warhead being lost. Strategic warheads, including the
4,000 or so that President Bush and President Vladimir Putin have agreed to
retire from service, tend to be stored in hard-to-reach places, fenced and
heavily guarded, and their whereabouts are not advertised. The people who
guard them are better paid and more closely vetted than most Russian

Eugene E. Habiger, the four-star general who was in charge of American
strategic weapons until 1998 and then ran nuclear antiterror programs for
the Energy Department, visited several Russian weapons facilities in 1996
and 1997. He may be the only American who has actually entered a Russian
bunker and inspected a warhead in situ. Habiger said he found the overall
level of security comparable to American sites, although the Russians depend
more on people than on technology to protect their nukes.

The image of armed terrorist commandos storming a nuclear bunker is
cinematic, but it's far more plausible to think of an inside job. No
observer of the unraveling Russian military has much trouble imagining that
a group of military officers, disenchanted by the humiliation of serving a
spent superpower, embittered by the wretched conditions in which they spend
much of their military lives or merely greedy, might find a way to divert a
warhead to a terrorist for the right price. (The Chechen warlord Shamil
Basayev, infamous for such ruthless exploits as taking an entire hospital
hostage, once hinted that he had an opportunity to buy a nuclear warhead
from the stockpile.) The anecdotal evidence of desperation in the military
is plentiful and disquieting. Every year the Russian press provides stories
like that of the 19-year-old sailor who went on a rampage aboard an
Akula-class nuclear submarine, killing eight people and threatening to blow
up the boat and its nuclear reactor; or the five soldiers at Russia's
nuclear-weapons test site who killed a guard, took a hostage and tried to
hijack an aircraft, or the officers who reportedly stole five assault
helicopters, with their weapons pods, and tried to sell them to North Korea.

The Clinton administration found the danger of disgruntled nuclear
caretakers worrisome enough that it considered building better housing for
some officers in the nuclear rocket corps. Congress, noting that the United
States does not build housing for its own officers, rejected the idea out of

If a terrorist did get his hands on a nuclear warhead, he would still face
the problem of setting it off. American warheads are rigged with multiple
PAL's ( ''permissive action links'') -- codes and self-disabling devices
designed to frustrate an unauthorized person from triggering the explosion.
General Habiger says that when he examined Russian strategic weapons he
found the level of protection comparable to our own. ''You'd have to
literally break the weapon apart to get into the gut,'' he told me. ''I
would submit that a more likely scenario is that there'd be an attempt to
get hold of a warhead and not explode the warhead but extract the plutonium
or highly enriched uranium.'' In other words, it's easier to take the fuel
and build an entire weapon from scratch than it is to make one of these
things go off.

Then again, Habiger is not an expert in physics or weapons design. Then
again, the Russians would seem to have no obvious reason for misleading him
about something that important. Then again, how many times have computer
hacked their way into encrypted computers we were assured were impregnable?
Then again, how many computer hackers does al Qaeda have? This subject
drives you in circles.

The most troublesome gap in the generally reassuring assessment of Russian
weapons security is those tactical nuclear warheads -- smaller, short-range
weapons like torpedoes, depth charges, artillery shells, mines. Although
their smaller size and greater number makes them ideal candidates for theft,
they have gotten far less attention simply because, unlike all of our
long-range weapons, they happen not to be the subject of any formal treaty.
The first President Bush reached an informal understanding with President
Gorbachev and then with President Yeltsin that both sides would gather and
destroy thousands of tactical nukes. But the agreement included no
inventories of the stockpiles, no outside monitoring, no verification of any
kind. It was one of those trust-me deals that, in the hindsight of Sept. 11,
amount to an enormous black hole in our security.

Did I say earlier there are about 15,000 Russian warheads? That number
includes, alongside the scrupulously counted strategic warheads in bombers,
missiles and submarines, the commonly used estimate of 8,000 tactical
warheads. But that figure is at best an educated guess. Other educated
guesses of the tactical nukes in Russia go as low as 4,000 and as high as
30,000. We just don't know. We don't even know if the Russians know, since
they are famous for doing things off the books. ''They'll tell you they've
never lost a weapon,'' said Kenneth Luongo, director of a private
antiproliferation group called the Russian-American Nuclear Security
Advisory Council. ''The fact is, they don't know. And when you're talking
about warhead counting, you don't want to miss even one.''

And where are they? Some are stored in reinforced concrete bunkers like the
one at Zhukovka. Others are deployed. (When the submarine Kursk sank with
its 118 crewmen in August 2000, the Americans' immediate fear was for its
nuclear armaments. The standard load out for a submarine of that class
includes a couple of nuclear torpedoes and possibly some nuclear depth
charges.) Still others are supposed to be in the process of being dismantled
under terms of various formal and informal arms-control agreements. Some are
in transit. In short, we don't really know.

The other worrying thing about tactical nukes is that their anti-use devices
are believed to be less sophisticated, because the weapons were designed to
be employed in the battlefield. Some of the older systems are thought to
have no permissive action links at all, so that setting one off would be
about as complicated as hot-wiring a car.

Efforts to learn more about the state of tactical stockpiles have been
frustrated by reluctance on both sides to let visitors in. Viktor Mikhailov,
who ran the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy until 1998 with a famous scorn
for America's nonproliferation concerns, still insists that the United
States programs to protect Russian nuclear weapons and material mask a
secret agenda of intelligence-gathering. Americans, in turn, sometimes balk
at reciprocal access, on the grounds that we are the ones paying the bills
for all these safety upgrades, said the former Senator Sam Nunn, co-author
of the main American program for securing Russian nukes, called Nunn-Lugar.

''We have to decide if we want the Russians to be transparent -- I'd call it
cradle-to-grave transparency with nuclear material and inventories and so
forth,'' Nunn told me. ''Then we have to open up more ourselves. This is a
big psychological breakthrough we're talking about here, both for them and
for us.''

The Garage Bomb One of the more interesting facts about the atom bomb
dropped on Hiroshima is that it had never been tested. All of those spectral
images of nuclear coronas brightening the desert of New Mexico -- those were
to perfect the more complicated plutonium device that was dropped on
Nagasaki. ''Little Boy,'' the Hiroshima bomb, was a rudimentary gunlike
device that shot one projectile of highly enriched uranium into another,
creating a critical mass that exploded. The mechanics were so simple that
few doubted it would work, so the first experiment was in the sky over

The closest thing to a consensus I heard among those who study nuclear
terror was this: building a nuclear bomb is easier than you think, probably
easier than stealing one. In the rejuvenated effort to prevent a terrorist
from striking a nuclear blow, this is where most of the attention and money
are focused.

A nuclear explosion of any kind ''is not a sort of high-probability thing,''
said a White House official who follows the subject closely. ''But getting
your hands on enough fissile material to build an improvised nuclear device,
to my mind, is the least improbable of them all, and particularly if that
material is highly enriched uranium in metallic form. Then I'm really
worried. That's
the one.''

To build a nuclear explosive you need material capable of explosive nuclear
fission, you need expertise, you need some equipment, and you need a way to
deliver it.

Delivering it to the target is, by most reckoning, the simplest part. People
in the field generally scoff at the mythologized suitcase bomb; instead they
talk of a ''conex bomb,'' using the name of those shack-size steel
containers that bring most cargo into the United States. Two thousand
containers enter America every hour, on trucks and trains and especially on
ships sailing into more than 300 American ports. Fewer than 2 percent are
cracked open for inspection, and the great majority never pass through an
X-ray machine. Containers delivered to upriver ports like St. Louis or
Chicago pass many miles of potential targets before they even reach customs.

''How do you protect against that?'' mused Habiger, the former chief of our
nuclear arsenal. ''You can't. That's scary. That's very, very scary. You set
one of those off in Philadelphia, in New York City, San Francisco, Los
Angeles, and you're going to kill tens of thousands of people, if not
more.'' Habiger's view is ''It's not a matter of if; it's a matter of when''
-- which may explain why he now lives in San Antonio.

The Homeland Security office has installed a plan to refocus inspections,
making sure the 2 percent of containers that get inspected are those without
a clear, verified itinerary. Detectors will be put into place at ports and
other checkpoints. This is good, but it hardly represents an ironclad
defense. The detection devices are a long way from being reliable.
(Inconveniently, the most feared bomb component, uranium, is one of the
hardest radioactive substances to detect because it does not emit a lot of
radiation prior to fission.) The best way to stop nuclear terror, therefore,
is to keep the weapons out of terrorist hands in the first place.

The basic know-how of atom-bomb-building is half a century old, and adequate
recipes have cropped up in physics term papers and high school science
projects. The simplest design entails taking a lump of highly enriched
uranium, about the size of a cantaloupe, and firing it down a big gun barrel
into a second lump. Theodore Taylor, the nuclear physicist who designed both
the smallest and the largest American nuclear-fission warheads before
becoming a remorseful opponent of all things nuclear, told me he recently
looked up ''atomic bomb'' in the World Book Encyclopedia in the upstate New
York nursing home where he now lives, and he found enough basic information
to get a careful reader started. ''It's accessible all over the place,'' he
said. ''I don't mean just the basic principles. The sizes, specifications,
things that work.''

Most of the people who talk about the ease of assembling a nuclear weapon,
of course, have never actually built one. The most authoritative assessment
I found was a paper, ''Can Terrorists Build Nuclear Weapons?'' written in
1986 by five experienced nuke-makers from the Los Alamos weapons laboratory.
I was relieved to learn that fabricating a nuclear weapon is not something a
lone madman -- even a lone genius -- is likely to pull off in his hobby
room. The paper explained that it would require a team with knowledge of
''the physical, chemical and metallurgical properties of the various
materials to be used, as well as characteristics affecting their
fabrication; neutronic properties; radiation effects, both nuclear and
biological; technology concerning high explosives and/or chemical
propellants; some hydrodynamics; electrical circuitry; and others.'' Many of
these skills are more difficult to acquire than, say, the ability to aim a
jumbo jet.

The schemers would also need specialized equipment to form the uranium,
which is usually in powdered form, into metal, to cast it and machine it to
fit the device. That effort would entail months of preparation, increasing
the risk of detection, and it would require elaborate safeguards to prevent
a mishap that, as the paper dryly put it, would ''bring the operation to a

Still, the experts concluded, the answer to the question posed in the title,
while qualified, was ''Yes, they can.''

David Albright, who worked as a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq,
says Saddam Hussein's unsuccessful crash program to build a nuclear weapon
in 1990 illustrates how a single bad decision can mean a huge setback. Iraq
had extracted highly enriched uranium from research-reactor fuel and had,
maybe, barely enough for a bomb. But the manager in charge of casting the
metal was so afraid the stuff would spill or get contaminated that he
decided to melt it in tiny batches. As a result, so much of the uranium was
wasted that he ended up with too little for a bomb.

''You need good managers and organizational people to put the elements
together,'' Albright said. ''If you do a straight-line extrapolation,
terrorists will all get nuclear weapons. But they make mistakes.''

On the other hand, many experts underestimate the prospect of a
do-it-yourself bomb because they are thinking too professionally. All of our
experience with these weapons is that the people who make them (states, in
other words) want them to be safe, reliable, predictable and efficient.
Weapons for the American arsenal are designed to survive a trip around the
globe in a missile, to be accident-proof, to produce a precisely specified

But there are many corners you can cut if you are content with a big, ugly,
inefficient device that would make a spectacular impression. If your bomb
doesn't need to fit in a suitcase (and why should it?) or to endure the
stress of a missile launch; if you don't care whether the explosive power
realizes its full potential; if you're willing to accept some risk that the
thing might go off at the wrong time or might not go off at all, then the
job of building it is immeasurably simplified.

''As you get smarter, you realize you can get by with less,'' Albright said.
''You can do it in facilities that look like barns, garages, with simple
machine tools. You can do it with 10 to 15 people, not all Ph.D.'s, but some
engineers, technicians. Our judgment is that a gun-type device is well
within the capability of a terrorist organization.''

All the technological challenges are greatly simplified if terrorists are in
league with a country -- a place with an infrastructure. A state is much
better suited to hire expertise (like dispirited scientists from
decommissioned nuclear installations in the old Soviet Union) or to send
its own scientists for M.I.T. degrees.

Thus Tom Cochran said his greatest fear is what you might call a bespoke
nuke -- terrorists stealing a quantity of weapons-grade uranium and taking
it to Iraq or Iran or Libya, letting the scientists and engineers there
it into an elementary weapon and then taking it away for a delivery that
would have no return address.

That leaves one big obstacle to the terrorist nuke-maker: the fissile
material itself.

To be reasonably sure of a nuclear explosion, allowing for some material
being lost in the manufacturing process, you need roughly 50 kilograms --
110 pounds -- of highly enriched uranium. (For a weapon, more than 90
percent of the material should consist of the very unstable uranium-235
isotope.) Tom Cochran, the master of visual aids, has 15 pounds of depleted
uranium that he keeps in a Coke can; an eight-pack would be plenty to build
a bomb.

The world is awash in the stuff. Frank von Hippel, a Princeton physicist and
arms-control advocate, has calculated that between 1,300 and 2,100 metric
tons of weapons-grade uranium exists -- at the low end, enough for 26,000
rough-hewed bombs. The largest stockpile is in Russia, which Senator Joseph
Biden calls ''the candy store of candy stores.''

Until a decade ago, Russian officials say, no one worried much about the
safety of this material. Viktor Mikhailov, who ran the atomic energy
ministry and now presides over an affiliated research institute, concedes
there were glaring lapses.

''The safety of nuclear materials was always on our minds, but the focus was
on intruders,'' he said. ''The system had never taken account of the
possibility that these carefully screened people in the nuclear sphere could
themselves represent a danger. The system was not designed to prevent a
danger from within.''

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and, in the early 90's, a few
frightening cases of nuclear materials popping up on the black market.

If you add up all the reported attempts to sell highly enriched uranium or
plutonium, even including those that have the scent of security-agency hype
and those where the material was of uncertain quality, the total amount of
material still falls short of what a bomb-maker would need to construct a
single explosive.

But Yuri G. Volodin, the chief of safeguards at Gosatomnadzor, the Russian
nuclear regulatory agency, told me his inspectors still discover one or two
instances of attempted theft a year, along with dozens of violations of the
regulations for storing and securing nuclear material. And as he readily
concedes: ''These are the detected cases. We can't talk about the cases we
don't know.'' Alexander Pikayev, a former aide to the Defense Committee of
the Russian Duma, said: ''The vast majority of installations now have
fences. But you know Russians. If you walk along the perimeter, you can see
a hole in the fence, because the employees want to come and go freely.''

The bulk of American investment in nuclear safety goes to lock the stuff up
at the source. That is clearly the right priority. Other programs are
devoted to blending down the highly enriched uranium to a diluted product
unsuitable for weapons but good as reactor fuel. The Nuclear Threat
Initiative, financed by Ted Turner and led by Nunn, is studying ways to
double the rate of this diluting process.

Still, after 10 years of American subsidies, only 41 percent of Russia's
weapon-usable material has been secured, according to the United States
Department of Energy. Russian officials said they can't even be sure how
much exists, in part because the managers of nuclear facilities, like
everyone else in the Soviet industrial complex, learned to cook their books.
So the barn door is still pretty seriously ajar. We don't know whether any
horses have gotten out.

And it is not the only barn. William C. Potter, director of the Center for
Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies
and an expert in nuclear security in the former Soviet states, said the
American focus on Russia has neglected other locations that could be
tempting targets for a terrorist seeking bomb-making material. There is, for
example, a bomb's worth of weapons-grade uranium at a site in Belarus, a
country with an erratic president and an anti-American orientation. There is
enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb or two in Kharkiv, in Ukraine.
Outside of Belgrade, in a research reactor at Vinca, sits sufficient
material for a bomb -- and there it sat while NATO was bombarding the area.

''We need to avoid the notion that because the most material is in Russia,
that's where we should direct all of our effort,'' Potter said. ''It's like
assuming the bank robber will target Fort Knox because that's where the most
gold is. The bank robber goes where the gold is most accessible.''

Weapons of Mass Disruption

The first and, so far, only consummated act of nuclear terrorism took place
in Moscow in 1995, and it was scarcely memorable. Chechen rebels obtained a
canister of cesium, possibly from a hospital they had commandeered a few
months before. They hid it in a Moscow park famed for its weekend flea
market and called the press. No one was hurt. Authorities treated the
incident discreetly, and a surge of panic quickly passed.

The story came up in virtually every conversation I had in Russia about
nuclear terror, usually to illustrate that even without splitting atoms and
making mushroom clouds a terrorist could use radioactivity -- and the fear
of it -- as a potent weapon.

The idea that you could make a fantastic weapon out of radioactive material
without actually producing a nuclear bang has been around since the infancy
of nuclear weaponry. During World War II, American scientists in the
Manhattan Project worried that the Germans would rain radioactive material
on our troops storming the beaches on D-Day. Robert S. Norris, the
biographer of the Manhattan Project director, Gen. Leslie R. Groves, told me
that the United States took this threat seriously enough to outfit some of
the D-Day soldiers with Geiger counters.

No country today includes radiological weapons in its armories. But
radiation's limitations as a military tool -- its tendency to drift afield
with unplanned consequences, its long-term rather than short-term lethality
-- would not necessarily count against it in the mind of a terrorist. If
your aim is to instill fear, radiation is anthrax-plus. And unlike the
fabrication of a nuclear explosive, this is terror within the means of a

That is why, if you polled the universe of people paid to worry about
weapons of mass destruction (W.M.D., in the jargon), you would find a
general agreement that this is probably the first thing we'll see. ''If
there is a W.M.D. attack in the next year, it's likely to be a radiological
attack,'' said Rose Gottemoeller, who handled Russian nuclear safety in the
Clinton administration and now follows the subject for the Carnegie
Endowment. The radioactive heart of a dirty bomb could be spent fuel from a
nuclear reactor or isotopes separated out in the process of refining nuclear
fuel. These materials are many times more abundant and much, much less
protected than the high-grade stuff suitable for bombs. Since Sept.11,
Russian officials have begun lobbying hard to expand the program of American
aid to include protection of these lower-grade materials, and the Bush
administration has earmarked a few million dollars to study the problem. But
the fact is that radioactive material suitable for terrorist attacks is so
widely available that there is little hope of controlling it all.

The guts of a dirty bomb could be cobalt-60, which is readily available in
hospitals for use in radiation therapy and in food processing to kill the
bacteria in fruits and vegetables. It could be cesium-137, commonly used in
medical gauges and radiotherapy machines. It could be americium, an isotope
that behaves a lot like plutonium and is used in smoke detectors and in oil
prospecting. It could be plutonium, which exists in many research
laboratories in America. If you trust the security of those American labs,
pause and reflect that the investigation into the great anthrax scare seems
to be focused on disaffected American scientists.

Back in 1974, Theodore Taylor and Mason Willrich, in a book on the dangers
of nuclear theft, examined things a terrorist might do if he got his hands
on 100 grams of plutonium -- a thimble-size amount. They calculated that a
killer who dissolved it, made an aerosol and introduced it into the
ventilation system of an office building could deliver a lethal dose to the
entire floor area of a large skyscraper. But plutonium dispersed outdoors in
the open air, they estimated, would be far less effective. It would blow
away in a gentle wind.

The Federation of American Scientists recently mapped out for a
Congressional hearing the consequences of various homemade dirty bombs
detonated in New York or Washington. For example, a bomb made with a single
footlong pencil of cobalt from a food irradiation plant and just 10 pounds
of TNT and detonated at Union Square in a light wind would send a plume of
radiation drifting across three states. Much of Manhattan would be as
contaminated as the permanently closed area around the Chernobyl nuclear
plant. Anyone living in Manhattan would have at least a 1-in-100 chance of
dying from cancer caused by the radiation. An area reaching deep into the
Hudson Valley would, under current Environmental Protection Agency
standards, have to be decontaminated or destroyed. Frank von Hippel, the
Princeton physicist, has reviewed the data, and he pointed out that this is
a bit less alarming than it sounds. ''Your probability of dying of cancer in
your lifetime is already about 20 percent,'' he said. ''This would increase
it to 20.1 percent. Would you abandon a city for that? I doubt it.'' Indeed,
some large portion of our fear of radiation is irrational. And yet the fact
that it's all in your mind is little consolation if it's also in the minds
of a large, panicky population. If the actual effect of a radiation bomb is
that people clog the bridges out of town, swarm the hospitals and refuse to
return to live and work in a contaminated place, then the impact is a good
deal more than psychological. To this day, there is bitter debate about the
actual health toll from the Chernobyl nuclear accident. There are
researchers who claim that the people who evacuated are actually in worse
health over all from the trauma of relocation, than those who stayed put and
marinated in the residual radiation. But the fact is, large swaths of
developed land around the Chernobyl site still lie abandoned, much of it
bulldozed down to the subsoil. The Hart Senate Office Building was closed
for three months by what was, in hindsight, our society's inclination to err
on the side of alarm. There are measures the government can take to diminish
the dangers of a radiological weapon, and many of them are getting more
serious consideration. The Bush administration has taken a lively new
interest in radiation-detection devices that might catch dirty-bomb
materials in transit. A White House official told me the administration's
judgment is that protecting the raw materials of radiological terror is
worth doing, but not at the expense of more catastrophic threats. ''It's all
over,'' he said. ''It's not a winning proposition to say you can just lock
all that up. And then, a bomb is pretty darn easy to make. You don't have to
be a rocket scientist to figure about fertilizer and diesel fuel.'' A big
fertilizer bomb of the type Timothy McVeigh used to kill 168 people in
Oklahoma City, spiced with a dose of cobalt or cesium, would not tax the
skills of a determined terrorist. ''It's likely to happen, I think, in our
lifetime,'' the official said. ''And it'll be like Oklahoma City plus the
Hart Office Building. Which is real bad, but it ain't the World Trade

The Peril of Power Plants Every eight years or so the security
guards at each of the country's 103 nuclear power stations and at national
weapons labs can expect to be attacked by federal agents armed with
laser-tag rifles. These mock terror exercises are played according to
elaborate rules, called the ''design basis threat,'' that in the view of
skeptics favor the defense. The attack teams can include no more than three
commandos. The largest vehicle they are permitted is an S.U.V. They are
allowed to have an accomplice inside the plant, but only one. They are not
allowed to improvise. (The mock assailants at one Department of Energy lab
were ruled out of order because they commandeered a wheelbarrow to cart off
a load of dummy plutonium.) The mock attacks are actually announced in
advance. Even playing by these rules, the attackers manage with some
regularity to penetrate to the heart of a nuclear plant and damage the core.
Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and something of a
scourge of the nuclear power industry, has recently identified a number of
shortcomings in the safeguards, including, apparently, lax standards for
clearing workers hired at power plants. One of the most glaring lapses,
which nuclear regulators concede and have promised to fix, is that the
design basis threat does not contemplate the possibility of a hijacker
commandeering an airplane and diving it into a reactor. In fact, the
protections currently in place don't consider the possibility that the
terrorist might be willing, even eager, to die in the act. The government
assumes the culprits would be caught while trying to get away. A nuclear
power plant is essentially a great inferno of decaying radioactive material,
kept under control by coolant. Turning this device into a terrorist weapon
would require cutting off the coolant so the atomic furnace rages out of
control and, equally important, getting the radioactive matter to disperse
by an explosion or fire. (At Three Mile Island, the coolant was cut off and
the reactor core melted down, generating vast quantities of radiation. But
the thick walls of the containment building kept the contaminant from being
released, so no one died.) One way to accomplish both goals might be to fly
a large jetliner into the fortified building that holds the reactor. Some
experts say a jet engine would stand a good chance of bursting the
containment vessel, and the sheer force of the crash might disable the
cooling system -- rupturing the pipes and cutting off electricity that pumps
the water through the core. Before nearby residents had begun to evacuate,
you could have a meltdown that would spew a volcano of radioactive isotopes
into the air, causing fatal radiation sickness for those exposed to high
doses and raising lifetime cancer rates for miles around. This sort of
attack is not as easy, by a long shot, as hitting the World Trade Center.
The reactor is a small, low-lying target, often nestled near the conspicuous
cooling towers, which could be destroyed without great harm. The reactor is
encased in reinforced concrete several feet thick, probably enough, the
industry contends, to withstand a crash. The pilot would have to be quite a
marksman, and somewhat lucky. A high wind would disperse the fumes before
they did great damage. Invading a plant to produce a meltdown, even given
the record of those mock attacks, would be more complicated, because law
enforcement from many miles around would be on the place quickly, and
because breaching the containment vessel is harder from within. Either
invaders or a kamikaze attacker could instead target the more poorly
protected cooling ponds, where used plutonium sits, encased in great rods of
zirconium alloy. This kind of sabotage would take longer to generate
radiation and would be far less lethal. Discussion of this kind of potential
radiological terrorism is colored by passionate disagreements over nuclear
power itself. Thus the nuclear industry and its rather tame regulators
sometimes sound dismissive about the vulnerability of the plants (although
less so since Sept.11), while those who regard nuclear power as inherently
evil tend to overstate the risks. It is hard to sort fact from
fear-mongering. Nuclear regulators and the industry grumpily concede that
Sept. 11 requires a new estimate of their defenses, and under prodding from
Congress they are redrafting the so-called design basis threat, the one
plants are required to defend against. A few members of Congress have
proposed installing ground-to-air missiles at nuclear plants, which most
experts think is a recipe for a disastrous mishap. ''Probably the only way
to protect against someone flying an aircraft into a nuclear power plant,''
said Steve Fetter of the University of Maryland, ''is to keep hijackers out
of cockpits.'' Being Afraid For those who were absorbed by the subject of
nuclear terror before it became fashionable, the months since the terror
attacks have been, paradoxically, a time of vindication. President Bush,
whose first budget cut $100 million from the programs to protect Russian
weapons and material (never a popular program among conservative
Republicans), has become a convert. The administration has made nuclear
terror a priority, and it is getting plenty of goading to keep it one. You
can argue with their priorities and their budgets, but it's hard to accuse
anyone of indifference. And resistance -- from scientists who don't want
security measures to impede their access to nuclear research materials, from
generals and counterintelligence officials uneasy about having their bunkers
inspected, from nuclear regulators who worry about the cost of nuclear
power, from conservatives who don't want to subsidize the Russians to do
much of anything -- has become harder to sustain. Intelligence gathering on
nuclear material has been abysmal, but it is now being upgraded; it is a hot
topic at meetings between American and foreign intelligence services, and we
can expect more numerous and more sophisticated sting operations aimed at
disrupting the black market for nuclear materials. Putin, too, has taken
notice. Just before leaving to meet Bush in Crawford, Tex., in November, he
summoned the head of the atomic energy ministry to the Kremlin on a Saturday
to discuss nuclear security. The subject is now on the regular agenda when
Bush and Putin talk. These efforts can reduce the danger but they cannot
neutralize the fear, particularly after we have been so vividly reminded of
the hostility some of the world feels for us, and of our vulnerability. Fear
is personal. My own -- in part, because it's the one I grew up with, the one
that made me shiver through the Cuban missile crisis and ''On the Beach'' --
is the horrible magic of nuclear fission. A dirty bomb or an assault on a
nuclear power station, ghastly as that would be, feels to me within the
range of what we have survived. As the White House official I spoke with
said, it's basically Oklahoma City plus the Hart Office Building. A nuclear
explosion is in a different realm of fears and would test the country in
ways we can scarcely imagine. As I neared the end of this assignment, I
asked Matthew McKinzie, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense
Council, to run a computer model of a one-kiloton nuclear explosion in Times
Square, half a block from my office, on a nice spring workday. By the
standards of serious nuclear weaponry, one kiloton is a junk bomb, hardly
worthy of respect, a fifteenth the power of the bomb over Hiroshima. A
couple of days later he e-mailed me the results, which I combined with
estimates of office workers and tourist traffic in the area. The blast and
searing heat would gut buildings for a block in every direction,
incinerating pedestrians and crushing people at their desks. Let's say
20,000 dead in a matter of seconds. Beyond this, to a distance of more than
a quarter mile, anyone directly exposed to the fireball would die a gruesome
death from radiation sickness within a day -- anyone, that is, who survived
the third-degree burns. This larger circle would be populated by about a
quarter million people on a workday. Half a mile from the explosion, up at
Rockefeller Center and down at Macy's, unshielded onlookers would expect a
slower death from radiation. A mushroom cloud of irradiated debris would
blossom more than two miles into the air, and then, 40 minutes later, highly
lethal fallout would begin drifting back to earth, showering injured
survivors and dooming rescue workers. The poison would ride for 5 or 10
miles on the prevailing winds, deep into the Bronx or Queens or New Jersey.
A terrorist who pulls off even such a small-bore nuclear explosion will take
us to a whole different territory of dread from Sept. 11. It is the event
that preoccupies those who think about this for a living, a category I seem
to have joined. ''I think they're going to try,'' said the physicist David
Albright. ''I'm an optimist at heart. I think we can catch them in time. If
one goes off, I think we will survive. But we won't be the same. It will
affect us in a fundamental way. And not for the better.'' Bill Keller is a
Times columnist and a senior writer for the magazine.