Disaster, Terror, War and CBRNE


Though we may wish that disasters, terror, war, chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive threats were a thing of the past, they are not. The United States has foresworn chemical and biological weapons, but many other nations, including many potential adversaries, have not. Furthermore, many of these threats occur in the natural environment (biological) or in routine industrial processes. For example, anthrax is found in the soil everywhere in the world, and phosgene is found around arc welding, metal degreasing, and pesticide manufacture. This database provides a large sample of natural and man-made incidents involving CBRNE materials.

Disasters are life altering events for whole populations, even those who were not directly affected. The American Millennial generation was defined by the Terrorist Attacks of 9-11. The Lisbon Earthquake of 1759 shook all of Europe, and its cultural aftershocks are evident still today. Even the death of one man makes a difference; who of those that came of age in the 1960s was not shaped by the assassination of JFK.

Chemical weapons – chemicals, usually synthetic, used to sicken, maim and kill adversaries. First used by the Germans in World War I, many industrialized nations including the United States developed extensive chemical weapons programs in the 1920s to 1960s. Agents include mustard (sulfur and nitrogen), Lewisite, and nerve agents (GA, GB, GD, and VX). The United States has destroyed over 90% of its chemical weapons stockpile and has only nerve and mustard agent remaining. The last stockpiles are at special destruction facilities in two sites, Pueblo, CO and Richmond, KY. Defensive research on chemical weapons is ongoing. Many toxic industrial chemicals such as chlorine, cyanide, phosgene, and organophosphate pesticides (malathione) have also been used as chemical weapons and have been involved in dangerous incidents.

Biological weapons – viruses, bacteria and other natural microorganisms used to sicken, maim and kill adversaries. These typically include anthrax, botulism, brucellosis, plague, smallpox, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fevers (including Ebola, Hantavirus, and many more). The US military has no biological weapons but continues defensive research.

Radiological weapons – By common military usage, this refers to conventional weapons (such as high explosives) contaminated with radioactive material (such as I-131, C-137, S-90). This does not include nuclear weapons. The United States does defensive research on radiological weapons but neither has nor uses them.

Nuclear weapons – The “atom bomb” uses a fission process to split atoms and the “hydrogen bomb” uses a fusion process to “melt them together.” “Little Boy” used on Hiroshima, Japan on 6 Aug 1945, and “fat boy” used on Nagasaki, Japan on 9 Aug 1945 both use fission. There have been no recorded instances of a fusion weapon being used, but the risk is significant. After the fall of the Soviet Union, thousands of devices and personnel that could be used to make nuclear weapons were unaccounted for. North Korea and Pakistan, both state sponsors of terrorism, have nuclear devices. Iran, another sponsor, is close to making one. In 2012, the Federation of American Scientists estimated that there were 12,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, of which 4,000 could readily be used.

Explosive weapons – Gunpowder, trinitrotoluene (TNT), nitroglycerin, nitrocellulose, RDX (C4), Pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) and other explosives have been used for 500 years for peaceful and violent pursuits. They are the most common type of military and terrorist weapon. The internet has sites describing how to construct such weapons with readily available materials. Timothy McVeigh’s attack on the Alfred P Murrah Building in Oklahoma City is an example.

CDC Bioterror Agents

For more information, please visit the following resources:

  1. The Center for Nonproliferation Studies
  2. Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction
  3. Clarion Project – Counterterrorism think tank
  4. National Counterproliferation Center
  5. Stimson Center: Biological and Chemical Weapons
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