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The atoms of nuclear terror

india Updated: Apr 14, 2010 01:40 IST

As no government can oppose making atomic substances less accessible, the real accomplishment of Barack Obama’s grand summit may be highlighting the threat of nuclear terror. The United States president could claim a few political laurels including the surrender, by Chile and Ukraine, of their enriched uranium stocks. But this summit was more about nuclear terror, its prospects and its prevention, than anything else.

There is a general assumption that terrorists using nuclear weapons is only a digital video phenomenon. This may be naïve. Many terrorist groups and their allies have sought out nuclear knowhow for lethal purposes. The al-Qaeda has been the most vocal about its nuclear ambitions. But almost everyone on India’s most-wanted list, from Dawood Ibrahim to the leaders of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, have been associated with nuclear questing. It is a mistake to assume nuclear warhead acquisition would be a barrier too high. A primitive Hiroshima-style bomb is remarkably easy to make — getting the fissile material is the difficult part. As one study has shown, such a bomb detonated in Mumbai would kill half-a-million people and leave nearly a million more wounded or poisoned. But nuclear terrorism’s most likely manifestation would be in the use of a ‘dirty bomb’. In this, any radioactive substance — including waste material, low-grade medical or industrial radiological sources — is combined with a normal ordnance and exploded in a populated area. The resulting area contamination, radioactive poisoning cases and general mayhem would produce just the sort of panic and state delegitimisation that terrorists seek.

The recent cobalt-60 tragicomedy in Mayapuri, West Delhi, has shown just how ill-prepared the Indian system is for a nuclear mishap. While the Mayapuri case was an accident, it revealed two things. One, on the preventive side, there is no regulated disposal of nuclear medical and industrial equipment. Two, on the reactive side, there is no transparent system of emergency response or decontamination, no genuine resources available for nuclear victims. Preemption, the deployment of the sort of nuclear-focused military units that exist in the US or Russia, remains the stuff of fantasy. This is all the more surprising given that India’s neighbour is Pakistan — the country which best matches a nuclear terror matrix of fragile government, Islamic militancy and a nuclear complex. Hopefully, in addition to communiqués, the Indian government will return from the nuclear security summit with an appreciation of what nuclear terror can mean for the country.