Proliferation of nuclear weapons

Publication - April 1, 2008
The UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is dedicated to the worldwide expansion of nuclear power, but it is also meant to be the watchdog for illegal nuclear weapons development. That contradiction is the key reason why the proliferation of such arms has been unpreventable.

The IAEA attempts to keep track of all radioactive materials as they move around the globe. However, as the world’s nuclear reactors continue to produce waste, and the nuclear five nations persist in having military nuclear programs, the IAEA’s task is a logistical nightmare. For budding terrorist organizations, it is a black market dream. Add the Soviet-era weapons and we are faced with tons of nuclear materials that are unaccounted for. One potential use for this material is in dirty bombs.

A dirty bomb is not a nuclear weapon that creates a large blast. Rather, it is a combination of a traditional explosives attached to radioactive material designed to spread radioactive matter to create an area of contamination.

There is a range of possible dirty bomb designs. Different explosive materials, applied in different quantities, would generate explosions of varying sizes, and different types and quantities of radioactive material would contaminate an area to different degrees.

The primary danger from the use of a dirty bomb is the explosive blast itself, even if the bomb uses a low-level radioactive source. Estimating exactly how much radiation might be at the site of the explosion would be difficult if the source of the radiation is unknown. The radioactive dust and smoke could spread and be dangerous to people’s health.

In light of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, government and industry are trying to placate us by implementing measures to provide security against intentional misuse of radioactive sources. However, given the number of sources — including engineering industries and health services — it is practically impossible to achieve protection.

In March 1998, Greensboro, North Carolina went on high alert after medical instruments used to treat cervical cancer disappeared from its general hospital. The instruments contained a small amount of radioactive caesium. Surveying the hospital with geiger counters showed they had not been misplaced. The state’s radiological protection board took over. A citywide search on the ground and from the air failed to recover the equipment.

No amount of security can stop the threat of nuclear weapons — the only way is to create a nuclear-free planet.