FROM THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
The havoc wreaked by frequent attacks in different parts of the world has made terrorism the greatest global threat of our times. All these attacks— from Paris to Brussels and from Mumbai to Pathankot—are aimed at gaining mass attention in the most dastardly of fashions, with no concern for human life. One small mercy is that terror groups have been unable to detonate a nuclear device so far. But even this scenario is becoming increasingly real. The Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, from March 31 to April 1, in which 50 nations, including India, participated at the invitation of US President Barack Obama, has raised an alarm that the possibility of terrorists detonating a nuclear device is no longer illusory.
There is evidence that ISIS is trying to acquire nuclear weapons, nuclear material to make weapons, and radioactive material that can be detonated in dirty bombs. Of the three, while the threat of loose nukes from the erstwhile Soviet Union seems under control now, and weapons-grade nuclear material is still hard to come by, the threat of dirty bombs is starting to loom large.
These bombs are different from conventional ones because they have radioactive material at their core. Even if these materials are not of the nature or purity required to manufacture large-scale nuclear weapons, the effects of detonating a dirty bomb could be disastrous. The immediate death toll may not be much higher than conventional bombs, but radiation could lead to widespread ecological damage and make the area unliveable. If detonated in the heart of a city, entire sections may have to be cordoned off and abandoned. And if it’s at a commercial centre, the loss of innocent lives is bound to be coupled with widespread panic and crippling economic costs.
The chances of terrorists getting their hands on radioactive substances for use in dirty bombs is greater because nuclear technology is used in multiple sectors—in hospitals for screening and cancer treatment, in industry for radiography, and in power generation, to name just a few. Radioactive materials for these civilian uses are spread in vast areas that are difficult to monitor. This has been proven by the radiation accidents in different parts of the world over the years. India was shown to be particularly vulnerable after a radioactive material, Cobalt60, was found dumped in a scrapyard in Mayapuri, New Delhi, in 2010, leading to at least eight people suffering high radiation doses.
Though procedures have been strengthened in recent times, urgent steps are needed to combat this new threat. There is a need for a closer monitoring of resources, for the training of forces that guard such materials, for increased security at India’s 21 nuclear power plants, and for ensuring international cooperation so that no other nation can become a hotbed for acquiring radioactive materials that can be used against another country.
For this week’s cover story, Group Editorial Director (Publishing) Raj Chengappa travelled to Washington. Chengappa, who has been covering India’s nuclear journey for over two decades now and is the author of Weapons of
Peace: Secret Story of India’s Quest to Be a Nuclear Power, examines the reality of the nuclear threat and how to combat it.
Nukes in the hands of terrorists is a storyline Hollywood has been obsessed with for decades. This fantastical threat becoming a reality is a deadly reminder of the world we now inhabit. This is an issue that can’t be taken lightly. There can be no laxity in the face of unyielding terror. We live in a very dangerous world of unknown, unseen enemies.
RAJ CHENGAPPA AT THE NUCLEAR SECURITY SUMMIT