Thu, Feb 24, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Flirting with Armageddon: Welcome to a new arms race

The threat of a dirty bomb or `conventional' nuclear strike is now greater than during the Cold War

By Paul Harris and Jason Burke  /  THE OBSERVER , London

"The intent is there," one Western intelligence source said. "The question is whether any militant organization -- particularly one that is being chased by the most powerful nation in the world -- could build the facilities to create and weaponize a nuclear armament, even some kind of `suitcase bomb' style device. The answer is `probably no.'"

Instead, most experts agree, the main threat comes from a basic radiological device -- or dirty bomb. This would be a conventional bomb laced with radioactive material -- perhaps only an element from a hospital x-ray machine.

According to a report to be published next week by the British American Security Information Council, the radiological impact of a dirty bomb is uncertain. In 1987 the Iraqi army tested a large radiological bomb for possible use in the Iran-Iraq war, but abandoned the plan because the radiation levels produced were not considered high enough. But dirty bombs do have two advantages for terrorists. First, they could cause widespread panic and chaos.

Second, the cost of the cleanup, and the implications of having large parts of a city center rendered unusable, would be massive.

There are also fears that North Korea or Iran may give nuclear technology to militants, or rogue scientists selling secrets or nuclear materials. A recent example is that of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, who reportedly made himself a fortune of more than US$400 million in a 15-year career of selling nuclear secrets to North Korea, Libya and, quite possibly, Iran.

Working through scores of off-shore accounts and cut-out companies, Khan's network stretched from South Africa to Morocco to Singapore. Turkish and Malaysian workshops made parts for centrifuges, Italian factories made furnaces, a German supplier provided vacuum pumps. Though the CIA have claimed they had penetrated the network, it is still thought Khan was able to visit North Korea more than a dozen times to swap Pakistani centrifuge technology for local missile know-how, pass uranium-enrichment technology to Iran and to give Libya blueprints for a bomb.

There are dangers everywhere. Many fear General Pervaiz Musharraf's pro-Western government in Pakistan, which already has the bomb, could be replaced by a harder line Islamic regime. And there are problems with former Soviet stocks. Russia alone has hundreds of metric tonnes of weapons grade materials such as enriched uranium.

The prospect of a nuclear attack by terrorists on a Western city is more possible now than at any time.

"If a nuclear weapon went off in a city somewhere, it would not surprise me at all," Leventhal said.

It is not all doom and gloom. Libya has come in from the diplomatic cold, giving up its nuclear ambitions. And there is now little possibility of a nuclear-armed Iraq threatening the Middle East.

But in general the situation looks bleak. It has been more than 30 years since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was created. It was designed to discourage nations from developing nuclear weapons in return for access to nuclear power and an obligation on behalf of the big powers to work towards nuclear disarmament.

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