The global impact of a chemical, biological or nuclear attack is almost unimaginable, and on Friday, a panel of four people whose job it is to prevent such a scenario spoke at the Aspen Institute as part of the Aspen Security Forum.
Laura Holgate, an official with the National Security Council, said nuclear security is perpetual. Since the first Nuclear Security Summit in 2010, world powers have helped 12 countries, including Ukraine, remove all materials that could be used as weapons.
“Think how differently we’d be thinking about the Ukraine situation now,” Holgate said, “if 50 kilograms of highly enriched uranium — that’s a couple of bombs’ worth — were still at that Kharkiv Institute, which the rebels have taken over. That’s a very different situation than what we have today.”
She added that in the past 25 years, the number of countries with nuclear materials has been cut in half.
Holgate was joined by Huban Gowadia, of the Department of Homeland Security, Andrew Weber, of the Department of Defense, and Michael Fey, of Intel Security.
Weber applauded the effort of reducing nuclear materials throughout the world, but on the biological warfare side he said materials are much more dispersed and it takes more of a global effort. In the early 1990s, Weber visited the world’s largest anthrax factory in Kazakhstan, capable of producing 300 metric tons of the material.
“Massive capabilities. It’s now gone. It’s a green field,” he said, adding that his department worked closely with Kazakhstan’s government.
But to do damage, he said, terrorists don’t need a facility that large. Batch production, on the level of home brewing, poses a problem.
“If you can produce a little bit,” he said, “you can produce multiple batches.”
Moderator Yochi Dreazen, managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine, asked Fey what the worst-case scenario is in a cyberattack.
Fey said he wouldn’t put cybersecurity threats in the same classification as weapons of mass destruction yet but that they could potentially be part of the equation in the “nightmare scenario.” A coordinated attack on American water, power and satellites would spell disaster.
“An adversary that has nowhere near nuclear-capable technology has the ability to shut down our core infrastructure in a period of a weekend,” he said.
The financial aftermath of 9/11 would be nothing compared with the aftermath of a cyberattack that shuts down 100,000 computers, power grids and satellite communication.
“It would be an unparalleled situation,” he said.
Gowadia discussed the threat of a dirty bomb — a radiological weapon that combines radioactive material with conventional explosives — and the misinformation associated with it. Such devices are “very bright” to American systems, so they are detectable.
In a successful detonation, the vast majority of lives lost would be from the explosion itself, she said, adding that the radiation would not “result in that much loss of life.”
The psychological impact and costs of cleanup would be major issues.
During the Q-and-A section of the discussion, an audience member asked how likely and how quickly Iran could produce a nuclear weapon.
“It would take more time today than it did six months ago,” Weber answered. “We have good capability to know if Iran tried to break out, and there would be sufficient time for the global community to react.”