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I've heard a lot about Osama bin Laden's nuclear aspirations. How easy is it to get a nuclear weapon?

Don't Panic!... Terror tips for the terrified

It's a widely held fear among defense analysts that the former Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal is not completely accounted for — and that it's possible for someone like Osama bin Laden to actually purchase a Russian nuke.

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To look into that rather troubling issue, I first sat down in front of my computer and gave myself 15 minutes to try to buy a nuclear weapon online. The closest I got was on eBay, where I found a 70-pound slab of pitchblende, a mineral that contains radioactive uranium, on sale for $20,000. Unless you plan on hitting someone over the head with it, you can't make it into a weapon.

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But fanatical, murderous multi- millionaires with international terrorist networks might have better luck getting their hands on working nukes than newspaper columnists with check cards. Our government believes bin Laden has been trying to obtain nukes for years, and that several attempts by his agents to illegally purchase Russian nukes have been foiled since the early 1990s.

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The bad news: Some reports indicate that bin Laden already has obtained nuclear weapons and/or nuclear materials. At least two claim that bin Laden operatives bought nuclear suitcase weapons from Chechen rebels in Russia for $30 million plus $700 million in heroin. (Perhaps the airline industry's knack for separating people from their luggage is now a national security asset.) And just last week, The Times in London reported that Western intelligence sources believe bin Laden's network has obtained nuclear materials from Pakistan.

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The good news is that even if bin Laden — or any other terrorist, for that matter — obtained nuclear materials, it doesn't mean they'll be using them on us anytime soon. Iraq's Saddam Hussein has been trying to build a nuclear arsenal since the 1970s and, thus far, has failed. It's reasonable to think that, unless bin Laden has, in fact, been able to purchase working nuclear weapons, he'll be less successful than Saddam.

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Unfortunately, some sources believe he's done just that. "Don't panic," my ass.

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E-mail your war questions to andisheh@creativeloafing.com

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