The recent theft of a truckload of highly radioactive material in Mexico unearthed a series of panicked questions about the homeland security threat of dirty bombs. “What are they?”, “what can they do?”, “who has them?”, and “who could have them?” were questions the media found themselves mostly unprepared to answer. Before long, however, the geopolitical, historical, and scientific answers slowly made their way into the updates and the immediate scare was diminished. Just two days after the theft, the materials were recovered and any immediate danger from the incident ended, apart from the continued danger the thieves themselves face due to radioactive exposure.
Though the threat is over the story persists, recalling an old homeland security concern that has been buried from attention under newer threats. In many ways, the threat of dirty bombs is much greater now than it was at the height of the Cold War. The threat of nuclear and radioactive materials proliferation skyrocketed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nuclear technology and materials passed from a structured, unified program into the hands of new and unstable governments. Like the proliferation of arms from former Soviet states to conflict zones across the world, hazardous materials disappeared from silos and reappeared far away from their intended research facilities, factories, or disposal centers. This already volatile scenario has been further exacerbated by 21st century manufacturing and technological demands, which has translated to massive logistical dilemmas involving the movement, storage, and disposal of these materials globally. Subsequently, these raw materials are now widely available for purchase and vulnerable to theft.
Since September 11, the nexus between dirty bombs and terrorism has been well documented and policed. Cases and instances range from the highly publicized case against US citizen José Padilla (Abdullah al-Muhajir) in 2002 to the life sentencing of a British national in 2006 for a dirty bomb plot he himself described as designed to “cause injury, fear, terror, and chaos.” In 2004, British authorities arrested Salahuddin Amin and a small ring of others involved in a plot to purchase materials for a dirty bomb from the Russian mafia in Belgium. Fortunately, due to the effective monitoring of both terrorism and radioactive materials, no dirty bomb plots against US targets have succeeded. But even in spite of recent victories in prevention, the danger still persists, in a large part due to the ubiquity of radioactive materials.
Whereas the complexity of nuclear weapons technology renders nuclear attacks by non-state actors essentially impossible, dirty bombs are altogether a separate matter. They are simple in definition and comparatively straightforward in design, a crude example of a “radiological dispersal device” (RDD). By combining radioactive material with conventional explosives, they can potentially create a hazardous radioactive zone that can have effects well beyond the blast radius of the explosion.
Fortunately, the physical danger posed by radioactive materials in such a device is much lower than the traditional explosive itself. While the lethal fallout from nuclear bombs can stretch across hundreds of square miles, the fallout from a dirty bomb would most likely be limited to an area equivalent to a few city blocks. According to the Department of Homeland Security, “It is very difficult to design an RDD that would deliver radiation doses high enough to cause immediate health effects or fatalities in a large number of people.” The DHS posit that a dirty bomb would most likely be used to contaminate and disrupt specific areas and wreak mental havoc and anxiety in exposed persons. That said, the potential impact of a dirty bomb varies widely depending on the type of radioactive material used and the way in which it is dispersed, among a number of other environmental factors. Still, experts agree that only those at the center of an explosion with a strong radioactive element would be close enough to the radioactive source to receive a potentially lethal dose, a proximity at which the greatest danger is still the conventional explosive.
While the immediate and even long-term health risks of dirty bomb radiation are small, the social and economic impact of a dirty bomb can still be devastating. Contaminated areas must be evacuated and undergo labor-intensive, expensive decontamination processes. The additional psychological impact of an invisible health threat is also an invaluable tool to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and their affiliates around the world.
While it is not possible to prevent every attack, the key to maintaining a successful record against dirty bomb threats is continuing strong regulatory security policies on high risk radioactive materials in every step of their economic cycle, from production and transportation to storage and disposal. With these policies in place, legitimate outlets can safeguard access to essential materials while guarding against illegal sales or theft. With these policies in place, it falls to counterterrorism and counter-proliferation operations to catch the materials that slip through the cracks and into the wrong hands. This two-tiered approach has, thus far, proved successful. These successes do not, however, nullify the continued danger posed by dirty bombs. Dismantling the illusion of immunity from these attacks continue at the highest levels of nuclear oversight agencies. According to the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, “more than a hundred incidents of thefts and other unauthorized activities involving nuclear and radioactive material are reported to the IAEA every year…some material goes missing and is never found.” Even after the resolution of the Mexico Cobalt-60 theft, the possibility of a devastating dirty bomb attack remains a real issue for US homeland security. However, by strengthening safe and efficient policies while continuing vigorous investigations against terrorist cells at home and abroad, it is an issue that can be kept from exploding its way back into the news.