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Far likelier is an attack on a nuclear power plant with conventional explosives--a fact recognized by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has staged mock commando raids on U.S. plants for years. Alarmingly, these war-game assaults have often succeeded, sometimes "releasing" more radiation than Chernobyl (an accident, it's worth remembering, that by some estimates caused 30,000 deaths).
Germ warfare has been around since at least the Middle Ages, when armies besieging a city would catapult corpses infected with the black plague over the walls. Today the bugs authorities most fear are anthrax (a bacterium) and smallpox (a virus). Both are highly lethal: the former kills nearly 90% of its victims, the latter some 30%. Anthrax is not communicable; smallpox, on the other hand, can be transmitted with horrifying ease from one person to another. "The feelings of uncertainty, of who is infected, of who will get infected, are the main advantages of biowarfare," says Stephen Morse of the Columbia University School of Public Health.
During the cold war, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union began developing anthrax as a biological weapon. Today 17 nations are believed to have biological weapons programs, many of which involve anthrax. Officially, the only sources of smallpox are small quantities in the labs of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and at Vector in Koltsovo, Russia. But experts believe that Russia, Iraq and North Korea have all experimented with the virus and that significant secret stashes remain. Even more worrisome are reports that Russia used genetic engineering to try to make anthrax and smallpox more lethal and resistant to antibiotics and vaccines. (The U.S. put a similar program on hold.)
Whatever form the next attack takes, all evidence suggests that the nation is still largely unprepared. That's beginning to change. The NRC has plans to beef up already heightened security at power plants, and public health officials are beginning to get serious about staving off biological assaults. Last year, for example, the CDC authorized a private company to cook up 40 million additional doses of smallpox vaccine to add to the U.S. stockpile--a job that will take several years. "We also need to develop new drugs and vaccines against other organisms that might be a threat," says Dr. Margaret Hamburg of the Washington-based Nuclear Threat Initiative. "And we need to do research to better understand how some of these organisms cause disease."
Why not just vaccinate every American against every possible germ-warfare agent? That would be impractical, if not impossible, and the side effects of the inoculations would pose a significant health risk. Instead, says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, we should strengthen the country's public health system. After Sept. 11, hospitals in New York City were asked to report any outbreaks of unusual symptoms. Health experts know that in the event of biological attack, the earlier an epidemic is detected, the easier it is to contain.