Nuclear weapons and terrorists: a deadly combination
Portable device can detect illegal caches
January 16, 1997
Web posted at: 7:20 p.m. EST
An expanded Web version of segments seen on CNN
From Correspondent Ann Kellan
(CNN) -- The specter of terrorists wielding nuclear weapons
is a nightmare security experts hope never comes true.
However across the globe, immense stockpiles of poorly
secured plutonium and uranium are keeping anti-terrorist
specialists awake at night after several recent discoveries.
Radioactive cesium hidden by Chechen rebels was uncovered in
a Moscow park, a briefcase of radioactive material was found
in a smuggler's car in Czechoslovakia and, on the German
border, a car searched by a Geiger counter yielded a cache of
uranium from the former Soviet Union.
"If a terrorist group does obtain nuclear materials and they
have the expertise to fabricate and improvise devices, I
think that would probably be the most significant challenge
facing Western civilization ever," said Terry Hawkins with
the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.
The lab has developed a portable device that can be used in
the field to spot nuclear material in unauthorized places.
The suitcase-sized instrument uses sophisticated detection
methods to locate tiny amounts of plutonium and uranium. It
is a smaller, self-contained version of a lab instrument
called a mass spectrometer.
In the United States, nuclear bombs and other radioactive
materials are locked up tight. America is now sharing
resources and technology with Russia and new nations, such as
Kazakhstan, to help them with their nuclear security
Despite fears of nuclear terrorism, international agreements
and highly trained task forces have so far held the threat at
bay. None of the thefts have involved large amounts of
Gulf War highlighted the problem
The anti-terrorism community got its first wake-up call after
the Persian Gulf War. The remnants of a secret nuclear
program were discovered in the deserts of Iraq, beginning
with the finding of suspicious green crystals.
"From a knowledge of nuclear chemistry, they knew they were
probably uranium tetrachloride but they had no idea of the
actual composition," said Los Alamos scientist Jose Olivares.
"It took about two to three months for that actual
composition to be determined. And that's where the need for a
field portable-type instrument came from."
Olivares is an expert on how the portable mass spectrometer
works to identify a compound and its level of radioactivity.
He and other scientists hope the device will be used in
airports and police stations around the world to help
authorities nab nuclear terrorists.
Check out what's coming up
on next week's Tomorrow/Today
Related sites: Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
- Los Alamos National Laboratory
The main goal of the Los Alamos National Laboratory is to provide the technical
technical foundation to decrease the global nuclear danger and to ensure a more secure future for the nation.
- Inorganic Trace Analysis:
The main purpose of the CST-9 technical group is to measure trace levels of constituents by using both traditional analytical methods and new instrumental methods.
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