Nuclear experts told Congress today that terrorists are not just interested in weapons of mass destruction they are also seeking weapons of mass disruption — weapons, that might kill no one but would create widespread psychological trauma.
In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the nation's top nuclear officials said "dirty bombs" could become the terrorist's weapon-of-choice. A dirty bomb, also called a radiological weapon, would use conventional explosives to spread radioactive materials.
The likely radioactive ingredients for these devices — cesium, cobalt and iridium isotopes — are widely used for industrial purposes and are easy to come by.
Radioactive material is stored in thousands of hospitals, labs and factories across the country — often with few safeguards, because private businesses are responsible for ensuring their security. The panel of nuclear experts warned lawmakers that this lack of oversight needs to change — and soon.
One scenario described today involved a terrorist moving through a crowded American city, dispersing low levels of radioactive material into the air. While the nuclear experts explained that no deaths would be likely in such an event, they said this sort of attack could potentially expose thousands to radiation. The experts said mass hysteria could follow once the radioactive material was detected and the news made public.
‘Big Bang for the Buck’
Richard Meserve, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the health consequences from the use of a dirty bomb would be minimal and said the greater concern is a "psycho-social one." He added, "The terrorist's greatest weapon is fear."
Steven E. Koonin, provost at the California Institute of Technology agreed with Meserve's assessment. He said such an attack could lead to perhaps four additional cancer cases in a population of 100,000. "We are talking about a weapon of mass disruption more than destruction. These weapons are not about terror. They are about psychological fear and they are about economic destruction, not casualties," Koonin added.
The nuclear experts warned lawmakers that most cities are not prepared to deal with the psychological impact. Cities could expect to see hospitals overrun with thousands of fearful patients; businesses shut down for months, with billions in lost revenue; and increased levels of domestic and substance abuse as residents cope with stress.
John Pike, director of the Global Security Organization, said, "The effects are not instantaneous. You have long-term potential health hazards and you also have longer-term psychological social and political impacts that can go on weeks, months, maybe years.
The panel of experts warned lawmakers that dirty bombs posed a greater threat than actual nuclear weapons, because the materials needed to build them could be obtained relatively easily.
"When a terrorist is looking for a weapon that's relatively easy to obtain that could have a big bang for the buck, a radiological weapon is going to be at the top of the list," Pike said.
Michele Norris and The Associated Press contributed to this report.