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Medical Association Worries About Nuclear Weapons in Terrorists' Hands - 2001-11-14

An international medical organization is expressing concern that terrorists could use nuclear material to stage a potentially deadly attack. The group is calling on countries which possess nuclear materials to step up security measures.

A panel from the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War told a Washington news conference Wednesday that there are various ways terrorists could inflict a nuclear strike. Among the possibilities are the development of crude nuclear weapons, the theft of nuclear waste, the seizure or purchase of weapons from a nuclear state, and attacks on nuclear power plants or weapons production facilities.

The organization estimates terrorists could build a simple nuclear device with 13 kilograms of highly enriched uranium or eight kilograms of plutonium. It says the break-up of the former Soviet Union and access to nuclear technology means the threat of nuclear theft is increasingly likely, particularly in Russia.

Bruce Blair, the president of the Center for Defense Information, said Russia's two top military and defense officials wrote to the U.S. government last year, asking for help in improving security at many of their country's more than 100 major nuclear storage sites. "Terrorism, obviously, adds to the urgency of these kinds of requests, because terrorists aided by insiders clearly have a better chance of capturing and diverting nuclear weapons, either in storage, or possibly those that are being ferried around in transportation in Russia at any given time," he said.

And the United States, as well as Russia, faces security concerns involving nuclear sites. Mr. Blair said nuclear power plants and other facilities are especially vulnerable to attack. He said both countries should cooperate in trying to reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism. "In the warming climate of U.S.- Russian partnership in fighting terrorism, I believe that it would really be a very good idea for Presidents Putin and Bush to agree to sponsor a joint investigation of these and other terrorist scenarios involving nuclear arsenals," said Mr. Blair.

Dr. John Pastore, a cardiologist at Tufts University Medical School in Boston, who served as a research internist with the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, said the international community must take swift action to prevent nuclear terrorism. "We must ban the manufacture, transfer and sale of fissile materials and bring all fissile materials under strict international control, with a rigorous system of international inspections," he said. "We must fund programs to purchase and destroy or render unusable all known stocks of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, monitor and detect the illicit trade in nuclear materials and technology, and also provide meaningful employment for nuclear weapons scientists from the former Soviet Union."

Dr. Pastore also called for a reduction in nuclear arsenals, beginning with those of Russia and the United States.