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Nation of Poisons

by David Corn

The terrorist attacks raised the threat of environmental toxics in a new and terrifying form. Environmentalists have become arms controllers.

On September 11, a small group of highly disciplined fanatics demonstrated that the achievements of an industrial society can be turned into powerful weapons against it. They also delivered an unsettling reminder that the United States is vulnerable to certain forms of terrorism because it is dependent upon a variety of hazardous products and processes. In the shock-ridden aftermath of the attacks, it was easy to envision acts of terrorism targeting not just airplanes and skyscrapers, but also nuclear reactors, chemical plants, oil refineries -- acts that could transform industries based on toxic substances into instruments of death.

This reality should reshape the way the nation thinks about environmentalism. Leaders and citizens of the United States and other Western countries now are able to see (if they wish to see) that technologies long challenged by environmental advocates are potential sources of immense danger in an era of terrorism. The prospect of attacks on such targets also undermines the old accusation that environmentalists care more about animals, bugs, and trees than they do about people and modern society. That cliché will have less power as environmentalists endeavor to protect the nation from extremists who have our toxic vulnerabilities in their sights. Osama bin Laden and his crew have pondered how to strike at power plants, how to hijack nuclear waste to use in a bomb. There may be other terrorists yearning to take human-made threats to land, water, air, and life and, as the experts say, weaponize them. Environmentalism is now a cause that seeks to disarm the fanatics.

Bin Laden has exposed a serious domestic security weakness of the United States: its dependency on poisons. Chlorine gas for bleaching paper. Uranium for generating electricity. Pesticides for increasing crop yields. Cyanides for making plastics. For decades, America has elected to live with various poisons in order to have more and cheaper goods and power. The potential hazards to people and the environment posed by these substances -- and by their manufacture, storage, and transportation in large quantities -- were often dismissed. This country, like many others, tolerated the assorted costs: environment-damaging spills, increased cancers, occupational injuries, the buildup of toxic wastes that could not be permanently and safely disposed of.

On September 11, the price of this relationship with toxics went up. A small, but important, example: Concern is growing that firefighters and rescue workers at the World Trade Center who did not wear respirators may suffer lingering health problems. If a chemical plant using, say, chlorine or phosgene were targeted, the long-term health damage among survivors could be far worse. In the days and years to come, environmentalism will have to be an essential component of counterterrorism. Enviros have become arms controllers.

The worst terrorism nightmare being contemplated these days is a nuclear bomb. A small nuclear bomb detonated on the ground in New York City could kill at least 100,000 people -- possibly many more -- and contaminate the area for years. "You'd basically have to abandon it," says Matthew Bunn, a nuclear weapons expert at Harvard. Fortunately, manufacturing a nuclear bomb is a challenge for terrorists, and would-be bombmakers first have to acquire weapons-grade uranium or plutonium. (There have been several cases of this material being stolen from nuclear facilities, however.) But it's no secret that an easier route for terrorists would be obtaining an existing nuclear weapon. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, national security experts have worried that Russian "loose nukes" could be bought on the black market. The United States has spent several billion dollars in the past decade to bolster security for the Russian nuclear arsenal, but many of the security programs have slowed or been underfunded in recent years.

Another nuclear threat is the "dirty bomb" -- a conventional bomb spiked with radioactive material. Think of TNT strapped to a container of plutonium or plutonium-contaminated waste. Such a device would not produce a nuclear explosion, but it could spread deadly radioactive matter across a swath of city. Hundreds, maybe thousands, would die from radiation poisoning and cancer, and the area could be poisoned for years. (Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years.) Terrorists would not need weapons-grade material for this type of bomb. In October, the London Sunday Times quoted a Bulgarian businessman who claimed a bin Laden associate had asked him to set up an environmental company to buy nuclear waste. He said he declined the offer.








Websites
Federation of American Scientists
www.fas.org

NRDC on nuclear weapons and waste
www.nrdc.org/nuclear

OMB Watch
www.ombwatch.org

To take action on security legislation, see NRDC's Earth Action Center.
www.nrdc.org/action






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David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation and author most recently of the political novel Deep Background.

Illustration: Phillippe Weisbecker

OnEarth. Winter 2002
Copyright 2001 by the Natural Resources Defense Council