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11 September and 11 March – what’s the connection?

September 12, 2011

by Tilman Ruff

Tilman RuffAn interesting twist that 11 September 2011 is both the 10th anniversary of the extraordinary multiple terrorist attacks in the US that spawned a worldwide “war on terror,” and also six months since the devastating combination of earthquake, tsunami and ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan. These apparently disparate events do share some important implications.

Where was the fourth airliner on 11 September 2001 headed? It crashed in a Pennsylvania field as passengers and crew fought the hijackers, but what was its target? The White House or Capitol Hill are generally thought the most likely targets, though some scholars have concluded that when it crashed, flight UA93 was heading for the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

A recent report “The US-Russia Joint Threat Assessment on Nuclear Terrorism” from Harvard University and the Russian Academy of Sciences notes that Al-Qaeda and North Caucasus terrorist groups have made statements that they seek nuclear weapons and have attempted to acquire them. The only other non-state terrorist group known to have systematically sought to obtain nuclear weapons is the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult group which was responsible for the release of nerve gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995.

The Fukushima disaster has demonstrated how loss of electric power to both nuclear reactors and spent fuel ponds can cause core meltdown, fires and explosions causing massive releases of radioactivity. The disaster has brought into sharp focus the dangers of spent fuel pools – often containing many times more and longer-lived radioactivity than reactor cores. However in most countries, including Japan, these pools are surrounded not by multiple engineered containment structures like reactors, but by a simple building. Many such pools are overfilled, with more spent fuel packed more densely than they were designed for. In Fukushima it was inadequate design and back-up systems which enabled the earthquake and tsunami to precipitate a nuclear disaster which was waiting to happen; but power and water for cooling reactors and spent fuel could also be disrupted intentionally, by terrorists or in a war.

The US-Russia Joint Threat Assessment notes that “One important lesson of the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents is that what can happen as a result of an accident can also happen as a result of a premeditated action.” They explain that terrorists will be searching for the “weakest link”, and observe that “the dramatic developments associated with the Fukushima disaster might awaken terrorist interest in this path to nuclear terrorism.”

Each of the world’s current 437 nuclear power reactors and the associated spent fuel ponds is not only a potential source of material which can be used to build a nuclear bomb; but also a very large, pre-positioned, radioactive ‘dirty’ bomb in waiting, with potential for radioactive fallout on a similar scale or greater than a nuclear weapon. If we do not act decisively to make both these dangers things of the past, terrorism involving either nuclear detonation or disruption of a nuclear facility can be expected to be just a matter of time.

Dr Tilman Ruff is at the Nossal Institute for Global Health at the University of Melbourne. He is Vice President of IPPNW for the Southeast Asia/Pacific region, and is chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

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