The New York Times The New York Times Magazine May 26, 2002  

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  Welcome, paulryder1

Nuclear Nightmares

By BILL KELLER

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.

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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.

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A one-kiloton explosion in Times Square would leave 20,000 people dead in a matter of seconds.


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Illustration from photograph by Fred R. Conrad
The panic that would result from contaminating the Magic Kingdom with a modest amount of cesium would probably shut the place down for good and constitute a staggering strike at Americans' sense of innocence.










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