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Author: George Bugliarello
Perceptions and realities often diverge. This is certainly the case with nuclear dangers, which are virtually ignored by people in their twenties (the Y generation) and are all but suppressed in the minds of many older people, for whom a revival of the terrifying cold war threat of a nuclear holocaust is unthinkable. Nevertheless, nuclear dangers have not vanished.
Although a nuclear conflict among major powers is not likely for the foreseeable future, the possibilities of attacks with low-power nuclear explosives of a few kilotons, like the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or of radiological dispersal devices, so-called “dirty bombs,” by determined adversaries, rogue states, or non-state terrorists are increasing. Potential instabilities of some nuclear states add to the danger, as they could make it possible for people with bad intentions or irresponsible parties to get their hands on weapons of great power.
The damage caused by even a small portable weapon of a few kilotons, such as North Korea’s weapons, the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the expansion of the nuclear arsenal in India or Pakistan all add to the uncertainties and grave risks—including the risk of serious miscalculations. Those risks are constantly increasing, as are the risks of further proliferation of nuclear technology and nuclear weapons. Add to these, the vulnerabilities of nuclear power plants and storage pools of spent nuclear fuel.
Advances in nuclear technology and the means of delivering nuclear weapons have created new opportunities for terrorists. Of the three major kinds of weapons of mass destruction that might be used—chemical, biological, and nuclear—nuclear weapons are the most difficult to develop because they require gathering nuclear materials. But the impact of nuclear weapons—physical destruction, radiation, heat, and psychological damage—can be catastrophic. Radiological bombs, although less lethal, also have potentially very high impacts, especially psychological impacts.
Most people are very frightened of the dangers of radiation, which, by and large, they do not understand well. For instance, in the event of a radiological attack or an attack with a small nuclear weapon, the most important question may be how to reduce exposure to radiation by defining the areas of contamination and the areas where people can be relatively safe, such as by taking refuge in a prearranged shelter or by sheltering in place. Although in the 1950s it was unrealistic to consider shelters against megaton bombs, this is not true today for kiloton bombs.
Low-power nuclear bombs and radiological bombs are easily transportable in small containers and can be dropped from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This expands the delivery scenario, particularly since many UAVs are now produced outside of the United States. However, weaponizing nuclear devices for delivery via missiles is a difficult proposition.
A great deal of nuclear material is not well protected, and a non-state entity could purchase or steal enough for a small kiloton bomb. Thus, we urgently need initiatives to stop the trafficking of nuclear materials and improve safeguards of existing stockpiles (e.g., the current Obama initiative). Materials for a radiological bomb can be gathered from a myriad of sources in most countries. Although the process is relatively easy, it does require time to accumulate enough radiological material.
Given the difficulties of assembling or acquiring a nuclear bomb and secretly assembling enough material for a radiological bomb, it is reasonable that, even if a terrorist organization decided to use them, attacks would be limited in number. However, even one attack with a few-kiloton bomb or an attack on a nuclear power plant would have devastating effects and would require major logistical arrangements for emergency management and ensuring there would be enough medical capacity to deal with the victims. The recent earthquake in Haiti has revealed how difficult it can be in a major disaster to make such capacity available.
People need accurate information and active guidance to prepare for nuclear events and to learn how to protect themselves. Response strategies to current nuclear and radiological threats, which are quite different from the doomsday scenarios of the cold war, include both physiological and psychological measures.
First, there must be changes in the way authorities communicate with the public, and first responders must be made aware of the nature of the new threats. Another urgent need is for an adequate number of well prepared, well trained forensic specialists who can make timely identifications of the sources of radioactive material.
This issue of The Bridge includes articles on some of the major aspects of current nuclear threats. It was assembled with the assistance of NAE members John Ahearne and Sigfried Hecker, who are also authors articles in this issue. The article by Siegfried Hecker, with Sean C. Lee and Chaim Braun, provides an overview and assessment of North Korea’s decision to use its nuclear capacity to develop bombs rather than generate electricity. The authors also suggest how the United States might move forward in managing the greatest risks.
Brian Radzinsky and George Perkovich of the Car-negie Endowment for International Peace, review the status, risks, and consequences of Iran’s nuclear program, another situation with a very high potential for miscalculation. NAE member Richard Garwin focuses on two nuclear terrorism scenarios, the detonation of an improvised nuclear device in a city and an attack on a nuclear reactor, spent-fuel storage pond, or reprocessing facility. He concludes that in a city the greatest damage and lethality would be caused by radioactive fallout.
In Brooke Buddemeier’s discussion of recent research on the consequences of a nuclear detonation, he also concludes that in a modern U.S. city, the best way to reduce casualties is to reduce exposure to fallout. But, he says, until recently, there was no federal guidance on how to do this.
Georges C. Benjamin, head of the American Public Health Association, gives a realistic assessment of the loss of critical medical and response infrastructure that would follow a nuclear detonation in a city, which would be a disaster of national significance. The National Disaster Medical System, with its 1,500 hospitals, he says, can be expected to rebound quickly. But poor communities are less likely to do so.
John Ahearne stresses the importance of communicating risk, of ensuring that community and first responders have a thorough understanding of the dangers and protections against radiation exposure, and the usefulness of providing a primer on radioactivity. In a paper on the health effects of a nuclear or radiological incident, Thomas S. Tenforde and co-authors, of the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements, again stress the need for prompt diagnosis and treatment and call for a paradigm shift in the thinking of communities and organizations that support emergency responders.
The articles in this issue may not cover all essential aspects of the nuclear threats we face, but they do convey a sense of the urgency of preparing to respond to realistic potential dangers. No one can continue to ignore them.
NAE Foreign Secretary