Dirty Bombs: The Impossible Becomes Probable

For many years in popular fiction and in films – not to mention in scores of academic and government publications – the same question has been asked: Will terrorists go nuclear? Until the collapse of the former Soviet Union it was an article of faith among experts that there was no known black market in fissionable material – and, therefore, that it would be virtually impossible for a rogue state or a terrorist group to build or acquire nuclear weapons. There also were some obvious problems related to assembling the equipment, technology, and skills required for the task. Finally, there was a presumed need not only to test the device but also to develop an effective delivery system. (However, numerous scenarios were quickly dreamed up about ways in which a bomb could be smuggled into the United States – in the hold of a ship, for example, or hidden inside a boiler or even in a shipment of machine tools.)

All of this changed with the fall of the Soviet Union and its fragmentation into eleven successor states. “The breakup of the Soviet Union left nuclear material scattered throughout the newly independent states and increased the potential for the theft of those materials, and for organized criminals to enter the nuclear smuggling business.“ So said President Clinton in a speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1995.

The Russian government, it rapidly became apparent, did not have an accurate inventory of either its weapons – especially the relatively small and easily concealable “backpack nukes,” as they are sometimes described – or its stockpiles of fissile and radiological material. Most Russian nuclear plants, it seems, never placed a high priority on fully accounting for their nuclear fuel; a ninety-seven percent reconciliation score was considered full accountability. Plants also tended to hoard any surplus to make up for possible future shortfalls. The Tomsk-7 facility in Siberia, moreover, is believed to have somehow “lost” a large amount of plutonium. Rebels even overran a nuclear storage site in Azerbaijan in 1990 – the site was quickly retaken by Russian troops, but the fact that one site had been captured one time suggested that the same thing could happen again, with a less favorable outcome.

As a result of these and other problems with Russian nuclear materials, the United States passed the Nunn-Lugar legislation to help the Russians and other USSR successor states control and protect such materials.

Strontium Capsules and Well-Guarded Potatoes 

Despite its noble goal, that program has had, at best, only a mixed success to date. The U.S. National Intelligence Council recently forwarded a report to Congress wherein it was stated that Russian officials “have reported that terrorists have targeted Russian nuclear weapon sites. Security was tightened in 2001, after Russian authorities twice thwarted terrorist efforts to reconnoiter nuclear weapon storage sites.

“We find it highly unlikely,” the report continued, “that Russian authorities would have been able to recover all the material reported stolen. We assess that undetected smuggling has occurred. And we are concerned about the total amount of material that could … [have been] diverted or stolen in the last 13 years.”

Russian efforts to safeguard their nuclear weapons are generally considered to have been more successful than the steps they have taken to protect their stockpiles of fissionable and radiological materials. U.S. teams found sites where radiological material was stored behind doors with no locks, only seals – which, if broken, would have indicated that someone had violated the site. At another site, the United States paid for elaborate security enhancements, including detection devices that were removed after the visit of an inspection team – incredibly, out of fear that the security systems themselves might be stolen by thieves. At yet another site, a new pipeline was built directly through the facility, rather than around it, rendering meaningless the millions of dollars of security enhancements that already had been paid for. According to a Russian special investigator, “potatoes are guarded better than radioactive material” in contemporary Russia.

And the incidents continue. Just two years ago in Tbilisi, Georgia, authorities arrested a man driving a taxi in which there were a number of boxes marked “Danger: Radiation.” Inside the boxes, which were emitting a dangerous amount of radiation, were capsules of strontium and cesium. The taxi driver had been hired to take the boxes by train to Adzharia, Georgia. Authorities speculate that the boxes were then going to be shipped to either Turkey or Iran.

High Priorities and Public Announcements 

Given that Russia and other Soviet successor states are believed to have hemorrhaged both fissionable/radiological material as well as nuclear know-how over the past decade and a half, the threat of a terrorist or rogue state carrying out an attack on the United States is now more than a reality; some would say it is a probability. For that reason alone there probably is no higher priority, from a homeland-defense perspective, than the development of the systems, procedures, and capabilities needed to protect this nation and its citizens from the threat of a catastrophic attack on one or more American cities.

In a variation on the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy that prevailed during the Cold War, the first step the United States should perhaps take to prevent such an attack is to publicly announce that it would launch a nuclear counterattack against any nation that either directly or indirectly aids and abets any rogue state or terrorist group in carrying out a nuclear or radiological attack, “incident,” or other event against the United States. Such an announcement would be a logical extension of President Bush’s several previous statements that any nation that harbors, financially supports, and/or helps terrorists in any other way would be held just as accountable as the terrorists themselves for acts of terrorism against the United States. Included in the aiding-or-abetting category, therefore, would be countries that provide assistance to nations – or to “non-state actors,” as terrorist groups are sometimes called – in obtaining fissile or radiological material, scientific know-how, and/or the delivery system used in the attack.

Detection of fissile or radiological materials remains a serious problem. Although the federal government has installed more than 400 radiation monitors over the past two years at U.S. border crossings, in the nation’s airports and seaports, and even in U.S. post offices that process international mail, new and more advanced detection technologies are needed, and detection instruments and devices based on those technologies will have to be installed on a massive scale, and used on a continuing 24/7 basis.

Other difficulties also remain. Despite the seriousness of the problem, administration spending on Russian nuclear transition initiatives and other efforts to reduce the threat posed by unsecured nuclear warheads, materials, and technological expertise has remained static – or, in some cases, has declined – in recent years. The program also has been slowed down not only by friction with Russian authorities but also at times by weak and/or inattentive leadership on the part of U.S. government officials.

Hiroshima Times 182,000 

Meanwhile, nuclear stockpiles continue to grow as Cold War weapons inventories are dismantled around the world. Experts estimate that, by 2010, there will be enough surplus uranium available from dismantled warheads to make 70,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs, enough HEU (highly enriched uranium) from dismantled bombs to produce another 65,000 nukes of the same size, and enough Plutonium-239 – from civilian-sector stockpiles in Japan and Western Europe – to build 47,000 Hiroshima-sized nukes. It seems clear that more effective, and much more aggressive, efforts are required to protect this material before it is too late. America’s first line of defense cannot be at its borders but must focus on denying rogue states and terrorists the nuclear materials, equipment, and scientific technology required to build fissile weapons.

However, even if all orphan high-order radioactive materials are ultimately secured, a major threat will still remain in the form of RDDs (radiological dispersion devices – which can even be constructed of radiological medical waste). The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced in 2002 that the alleged “controls” of more than a hundred countries were at that time inadequate to prevent the theft of radioactive materials – and, therefore, that almost any nation in the world was (and still is) capable of creating so-called “dirty bombs.” Intelligence officials believe that a number of terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, can be added to the IAEA list.

An RDD uses conventional explosives to disperse radiological material. An RDD attack carried out in lower Manhattan – even one that produced only “limited” casualties, however that term is defined – might cause the stock market to implode, and also might require a billion dollars to clean up. Some people, fearing residual radiation, would probably never return to New York. Indeed, fear is the most likely byproduct of an RDD attack.

It seems clear that – in addition to focusing more time, attention, and resources on the detection and prevention of nuclear or radiation attacks – the United States must put greater emphasis on the nation’s emergency response and mitigation capabilities in the event that the unthinkable occurs nonetheless. America has been lucky so far. But, as all sports fans know, the longest winning streak on record cannot last forever.

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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