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By Geoffrey D. Dabelko

In 1988, nuclear war was "undoubtedly the gravest" threat facing the environment, according to Our Common Future, commonly known as the Brundtland report. The possible environmental consequences of thermonuclear war radioactive contamination, nuclear winter, and genetic mutations were widely feared during the Cold War, especially by citizens of the United States and Soviet Union, which the report called "prisoners of their own arms race."

Thankfully, these nightmare scenarios did not come to pass, and, aside from the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, our environment has largely escaped the impact of radioactive fallout. However, in the 20 years since the report's publication, the specter of nuclear destruction has not yet been "removed from the face of the Earth," as the report called for, but has merely changed scale: the threat of the mushroom cloud has been replaced by the threat of the the dirty bomb a crude device that a terrorist cell could fashion out of pilfered nuclear material. Setting off such a bomb in a world city-a major hub in the global economy could create more disruption than the paradigm-shifting attacks of September 11, 2001, although the radioactivity would impact far fewer people than the feared global nuclear winter of old.