Former Los Alamos Chief Urges Tighter Global Security for Nuclear Materials
Siegfried Hecker, one of the world's foremost experts on nuclear weapons, warned
that terrorists could steal or purchase sufficient weapons-usable materials to build a crude nuclear weapon and devastate a large city. Speaking at a AAAS lecture, he listed the most likely sources of such nuclear materials as Pakistan, followed by North Korea; highly enriched uranium-fueled research reactors around the world; Russia; Kazakhstan; and Iran.
International cooperation, especially with Russia, is required to tighten security of fissile materials around the world to prevent them from getting into the hands of terrorists, said the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
"The likelihood of terrorists getting hold of such materials is
not great, but it's not zero," Hecker said in comments after the talk. "And since the consequences are so devastating, each country that possesses fissile materials must do
everything to secure them."
The highest-probability nuclear threat posed by terrorists is the detonation of a radiological or "dirty bomb," he said. The radioactive materials for creating such a weapon are ubiquitous and are typically used for scientific, medical, agricultural and industrial purposes. But there would be no mushroom cloudthe dispersal would be limited and the radiation might not be lethal on a massive scale. A dirty bomb is "a weapon of mass disruption, not destruction," he said at the 3 February talk organized by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.
Still, he said, it could cause "severe" fear, panic and economic disruption. Even as homeland security officials and scientists work to thwart the terrorists, Hecker said, they could do much to prepare the public and the news media for the possibility of such an attack.
Though intelligence experts have warned that terrorists are likely seeking to obtain a nuclear device, such a bomb would be difficult to obtain and difficult to detonate. But a "dirty bomb" is much different. It would typically combine a conventional explosive with readily available radioactive material, with the blast used to disperse that material. While it may not contain enough of a concentrated radiation dose to kill many people or make them sick, it could contaminate an area of perhaps several square blocks of a city.
Hecker said the U.S. could counter the threat by doing more to protect the sources and reduce the supply of low-grade radioactive materials around the world. He stressed that it is critical to prepare the public and media for one of these events, "which will happen," by educating them that radiological threat is very different than a nuclear bomb.
Hecker explained the evolution of the changing nuclear threat as having begun with the devastating bombing of Japan near the close of World War II. The magnitude of the destruction in Japan showed the world that the use of nuclear weapons could end civilization as we know it. Thus, in the ensuing decades, the U.S. has used its nuclear capabilities as a deterrent in containing the expansion of the former Soviet Union, which had developed its own nuclear program.
Since the Soviet collapse, the United States has been working to help secure the materials and the nuclear know-how in chaotic Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union. Today, the goal of such activity is to prevent a nuclear weapon or related materials from falling into the hands of terrorists.
He believes that the terrorists who unleashed the havoc of 9/11 would show no restraint should they acquire nuclear weapons or the materials necessary for their manufacture. "The key is to keep weapons-usable materials out of the hands of terrorists," he said.
Hecker has long been concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. As the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 to 1997 and now a senior fellow at the lab, he is recognized as one of the world's experts on plutonium. He was the last U.S. scientist able to visit North Korea's nuclear program in 2004. North Korea is one of nine countries the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel are the others that currently possess, or are suspected of possessing, nuclear weapons.
Hecker explained that the proliferation of nuclear materials was a natural consequence of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program, initiated in 1953. Eisenhower saw the potential dangers of nuclear weapons and tried to strike the bargain of having countries forego the development of these weapons in return for help in developing peaceful uses of atomic energy, such as energy production, medicine and research. Although much good has come out of the program, such as having almost 20 percent of the world's electricity provided by clean nuclear power, Hecker said, "the United States and Russia put many nuclear facilities and reactors in places in the world that today we wish we wouldn't have."
Though catastrophe and full-blown chaos have largely been avoided following the collapse of the Soviet Union, he said, Russia's large and inadequately secured stock of weapons-usable materials plutonium and highly enriched uranium poses a "clear and present danger."
But Hecker said that U.S. nonproliferation efforts continue to be focused in making sure that places where nuclear materials exist are well protected and secure.
"Dr. Hecker's experience with U.S. nuclear weapons and the U.S. weapons program is invaluable in helping the U.S. address nonproliferation challenges as varied as those presented by the states of the former Soviet Union and North Korea," said physicist Benn Tannenbaum, senior program associate at the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.
The Center was created by AAAS in 2004 with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation's Science, Technology and Security Initiative. The center acts as a two-way portal that facilitates communication between academic centers, policy institutes, and policymakers, with a goal of encouraging the integration of science and public policy for enhanced national and international security.
24 February 2005