TCS Daily


...and Osama's Secret Weapon

By Herbert Inhaber - January 24, 2002 12:00 AM


Osama Bin Laden has a secret implement of war. No, it's not in the form of anthrax-laden letters or other weapons. Rather, it's in our heads - our almost compulsive fear of anything to do with radioactivity. Bin Laden, or his successors, can exploit these fears easily, with little cost to them in manpower or treasure.

A new report from the United Nations shows how this fear created a far bigger social disaster in Chernobyl than was warranted by the amount of radioactivity released by the crippled reactor.

(Editor's note: the U.N. has yet to make the study available on its web site. For a related article describing the report, click HERE.)

For years the West had the impression that the Soviet Union ignored tragedies within its borders. News about airline accidents, for example, was routinely suppressed. But the pendulum swung the other way -- and too far -- after Chernobyl. The thousands that were displaced from their homes unnecessarily after the accident are the equivalent of Ukrainian Thomas Wolfes - they can't go home again.

The accident created a "dependency culture" in much of Eastern Europe, where almost every physical ailment was blamed on the radioactive plume. Victims expected compensation from their governments. Cash-strapped governments appealed to the West for ever-more aid.

In Western Europe, thousands of women aborted their fetuses for fear of deformities, although the amount of radioactivity they ingested was far too small to cause even the slightest increase in birth defects.

Do you suppose al Qaeda has read these reports of semi-hysteria and said, "No, we wouldn't be so mean as to trade on this?" Not likely.

There are at least two ways al Qaeda can generate panic. First is to fire a missile - any missile - at a nuclear reactor. It is unlikely that terrorists will be able to repeat their gruesome success in an airplane after September 11, so any strike would have to be on the ground. There still may be some Stinger missiles, distributed by the U.S. to overthrow the former Soviet puppet regime, in Afghanistan. It is not impossible that one or more could be smuggled into this country.

But reactors are about as hardened against release of radioactivity as any structure on earth. Their walls are many feet of reinforced concrete. Sounds like a waste of a perfectly good anti-aircraft missile, as it bounces off the impermeable walls.

Not to worry, say the al Qaeda planners. Just the headline "Missile Attack on Reactor" will be enough to make the anthrax attack look like a dinner party. Even if the missile goes off course and hits the turbine building, where there is no radioactivity, that will be enough. Governors will panic, and order evacuations. Even those state officials who have some knowledge of the issues and urge calm will find their populations around the reactor leaving in a hurry.

The result? The terrorists gain a great publicity coup at little expense - all because of bin Laden's secret weapon in our heads. In fact, it makes a second attack more likely, because it will show that the U.S. is the paper tiger that Mao Tse Tung described decades ago.

The second possibility is the so-called "dirty bomb." This is merely uranium, plutonium or radioactive cobalt wrapped around a conventional explosive. Timothy McVeigh showed that the latter is not too difficult to make. How difficult is it to get the outer wrapper, the one that would create hysteria, and what would be the effect?

The Boston Globe didn't help much by claiming, "While far less dangerous than a fission explosion, such a bomb would spread radiation that could cause death, long-term illness, and genetic damage, depending on a victim's proximity to the blast and level of exposure." That's like saying, "walking on the street could kill you if a ten-ton truck came hurtling at you." Of course it could happen, but people stroll in spite of this.

The little word "could" dominates most descriptions of dirty bombs. If you happened to be within a few yards of when it went off, you could suffer some health effects. But if you were some distance away, breathing in a few radioactive particles almost certainly would not increase your cancer, asthma or any other type of risk - other than mental stress, as the article on Chernobyl shows.

How difficult would it be for Osama to get his hands on radioactive material? It has been widely reported that Bin Laden had talks with two Pakistani nuclear scientists. But no verified claims have been made that they passed him any nuclear material. On Dec. 10, the Wall Street Journal reported that men selling low-enriched uranium had been caught in Moscow. While some material is undoubtedly out there, it is beyond al Qaeda's competence to make a real bomb. Why bother, when they came get almost the same results for much less money, and without having passed Nuclear Engineering 101?
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