Tackling the threat of nuclear terrorism

February 07, 2002

The only effective way to tackle the threat of nuclear terrorism is to abolish nuclear weapons and establish strict international control of all fissile materials that could be used to make new weapons, argue three US physicians in this week's BMJ.

In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, nuclear terrorism has emerged as a real threat and could take several forms, from an attack on nuclear power plants and reactors to the detonation of a nuclear bomb in an urban area, write the authors.

Using computer technology, they have calculated the potential impact of a major nuclear explosion at ground level in New York City. The blast and thermal effects of such an explosion would kill 52,000 people instantly, and direct radiation would cause 44,000 cases of radiation sickness, of which 10,000 would be fatal. Radiation from fallout would kill another 200,000 people and cause several hundred thousand additional cases of radiation sickness. In the wake of such an attack, the ability to aid survivors would be very limited.

The international community urgently needs to expand its effort to secure existing stockpiles of nuclear weapons and materials, particularly in Russia, Pakistan, and India. The efforts of the al-Qaeda network to obtain nuclear weapons or weapons grade nuclear materials are particularly worrying, say the authors.

Achieving this goal must be among the most urgent of all public health priorities, they conclude.
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BMJ

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