MOSCOW, Jan. 25 (UPI) -- A medium-yield nuclear warhead taken apart by terrorists would contaminate an area of several square kilometers for many years. However, several hundred kilometers would be contaminated if terrorists succeed in damaging a reactor or a facility storing spent nuclear fuel.
An explosion at a uranium-enrichment factory or a reactor producing nuclear materials would contaminate several thousand square kilometers of the surrounding territory.
These scenarios seem terrifyingly possible. Nikolai Patrushev, director of the Russian Federal Security Service, known by its Russian initials FSB, has said the intentions of terrorists to obtain radioactive materials and gain access to nuclear technologies is one of the most serious current threats.
Many experts believe that some facilities storing high-enriched uranium and weapon-grade plutonium in Russia, the United States and some other countries are vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and it is much easier to fashion a homemade bomb out of uranium-235 than plutonium-240. However, NPP uranium and submarine nuclear fuel cannot be used to make primitive "dirty bombs," or radiological dispersal devices combining radioactive materials with conventional explosives. Such bombs are unable to trigger a chain reaction but can, nonetheless, contaminate large areas.
Preventing extremists' attempts to steal high-enriched uranium and weapon-grade plutonium are the last line of defense and a key factor preventing disastrous acts of nuclear terrorism.
Russian Police Col. Gen. Andrei Novikov, director of the Commonwealth of Independent States Counter-Terrorist Center, has cited International Atomic Energy Agency statistics highlighting 1,080 cases of illegal trade, use, storage and theft of nuclear or radioactive materials worldwide from January 1993 till December 2006. He said European authorities had registered a 100 percent increase in the smuggling of radioactive materials suitable for making dirty bombs since 2002.
Experts say in the next few years, terrorists could shift their gaze toward Central Asia, namely, the former Soviet Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, where large uranium deposits are located.
According to Russian experts, the current counter-terrorist system rules out acts of nuclear terrorism worldwide. However, effective counter-terrorist operations should not be merely based on sporadic secret-service responses or chance successes.
A system of comprehensive measures is the only way to save the world from a nuclear holocaust.
The international community, primarily the nuclear club, must draft and implement such measures. In late 2007 Russian President Vladimir Putin told a meeting of the Presidium of the State Council in Moscow that nuclear power plants and storage facilities for radioactive materials must be reliably protected from any criminals.
Putin said Russia had accumulated more than 70 million metric tons of solid-state radioactive waste and that the processing infrastructure was not sufficiently developed.
The problem is quite serious because the eight nuclear powers -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel -- now wield 12,100 combat-ready nuclear warheads plus another 15,000 reserve warheads.
Russia and the United States each have 5,682 and 5,521 nuclear warheads, including 3,352 and 5,021 strategic warheads and 2,330 and 500 tactical munitions, respectively.
(Yury Zaitsev is an academic adviser with the Russian Academy of Engineering Sciences. This article is reprinted by permission of RIA Novosti. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.)
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