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Where would bin Laden get the material? Again, the most common answer is Russia, with its reputation as a fissile flea market. And a bin Laden associate has told authorities that the mastermind is shopping for nuclear ingredients. Adds Leventhal: "My feeling is that the prudent assumption is that bin Laden is nuclear capable in some fashion." Other experts are less certain that any terrorist group could pull off a nuke. A 1999 Rand study on terrorism noted somewhat reassuringly that "building a nuclear device capable of producing mass destruction presents Herculean challenges for terrorists and indeed even for states with well-funded and sophisticated programs."
Which is why the greater danger may lie in dirty bombs, conventional weapons used to spray radioactive material--anything from used reactor rods to contaminated clothing--over wide areas. Although the death toll wouldn't be great, the contamination and the public panic could be widespread. "The ultimate dirty bomb is a nuclear power reactor," says NCI's Leventhal. That someone will run a jet into a cooling tower isn't the only risk. Periodically the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has staged mock attacks against facilities, and the faux intruders won half the time--meaning they were in a position to cause severe damage. It's a target-rich environment: not only is the core vulnerable, but one NRC study also concluded that if terrorists blew up the cooling pool that holds the spent fuel, the radiation could kill 6% of the people living within 10 miles of the plant.
--By Bill Saporito, with reporting by Mark Thompson/Washington