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Dirty Bombs – Terrifying, But Not In The Way That You Think

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There is nothing scarier than the prospect of nuclear terrorism. Here, author Al J Venter explains that a ‘Dirty Bomb’ attack might not be as immediately devastating as generally feared. Equally though, he illustrates that the risks of nuclear material falling into the wrong hands are alarmingly high, and that authorities cannot afford to be complacent.

The following is an edited version of an excerpt from his book ‘Nuclear Terror’. To learn more, pick up a copy here. (Use the code FNNT25 to get a 25% discount).

Article by Al J. Venter

Among the most consistent debates along the corridors of power in Washington, Whitehall and the Kremlin is whether nuclear, chemical or biological weapons will be the first to be used in upgraded weapons of mass destruction (WMD) onslaughts by Islamic zealots.

For many, the consensus is that nuclear is the most likely of these three, with an RDD – Radiological Dispersal Device – being the delivery method.

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The video game ‘Dirty Bomb’ involves a team of mercenaries dealing with this kind of attack – one hopes that, in this case, life does not imitate art

What sets the RDD apart from weapons used by other dissident political groupings is that al-Qaeda has shown an unusual and historic interest in these weapons, otherwise known as ‘Dirty Bombs’. 

In fact, one senior al-Qaeda official captured by the Americans said of his organisation: 

“…they know exactly how to do it.”

The motivation for such an attack can be found in the writings of Dhiren Barot, a British Hindu convert to Islam. 

Writing under the alias of Esa al-Hindi in a book titled The Army of Madinah in Kashmir (Madinah, or more commonly Medina, refers to the second holiest site in Islam) Barot declared that one way to counter what he referred to as ‘Western interference in Muslim lands’ would be to conduct large-scale attacks with radiological weapons.

But where would the radioactive elements of such a device come from? And how could terrorists get it into the US?

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US Air Force picture of an exercise in 2010 in which the hosing down of a ‘victim’ of dirty bomb attack is rehearsed

One option al-Qaeda seriously considered was using spent fuel cells from dismantled former Soviet Union nuclear submarines currently being taken apart in Russia’s far northern Kola Peninsula. 

Once obtained and weaponised, the plan was – and still is - to smuggle a radiological bomb (or pathogens such as anthrax) across the Mexican border, or possibly secreted in a shipping container through a major US port.

And having arrived inside the US, a Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report estimated that the impact of an attack from an RDD “would depend on many variables, such as meteorological conditions, type and amount of radiological material, duration of exposure, and method of dispersal”.   The report goes on: 

“…both the threat posed by terrorist RDD use and the magnitude of impact are matters of some contention. Some experts believe that terrorists could, without great difficulty, obtain radioactive material and construct an RDD…others assert that radiation sources intense enough to cause casualties in an RDD attack would be injurious to the terrorists during acquisition and use. Most experts agree that few casualties would be likely to directly result, generally only among those close to the device, but many disagree on how attractive an RDD would be to a terrorist.

“Some assert that the inherent difficulties of handling radioactive material combined with few direct casualties make RDDs less likely terrorist weapons. Other experts claim that terrorists recognize the potential economic and psychological effects of such a weapon and thus more highly value RDDs as terror weapons.”

The argument about terrorists falling victim to their own destructive device is viewed by some as superfluous.

Or, as one authority suggested, do those who compile these reports not read the daily newspapers? 

Islamic zealots have proved many times in recent years that no matter what the risk – radiation sickness or otherwise – they would be happy to die for the cause in order to achieve their objectives. Suicide bombers are as much a feature of today’s fundamentalist Islamic world as their five-times-a-day call to prayer. 

But as frightening as this is, RDDs might more accurately be referred to as weapons of mass disruption than weapons of mass destruction.

In a large RDD blast within the confines of a city, there would obviously be a number of casualties, including people exposed to the actual blast who would succumb to the effects of the chemical explosion, as would be the case with a conventional bomb and the shrapnel that it disperses. 

Though at the same time, the number of casualties would not be nearly as many as some authorities like to predict: a major bomb in downtown Chicago or Berlin would result in hundreds rather than thousands of casualties, of which only a limited number would die. 

Furthermore, according to Dr von Wielligh, who has studied the likely outcome of such an attack, it is extremely unlikely that there would be such a vast amount of radioactive material in the immediate vicinity of an RDD blast that people would die right there from radiation. Acute radiation effects – including death - would only appear in the days, weeks or months that followed the exposure.

The main purpose of an RDD is to contaminate the surroundings and to disrupt normal commercial and other activities for an extended period. Most salient - and the terrorists know it – is the principal objective of detonating a ‘Dirty Bomb’ to create panic on a massive scale, which would unquestionably happen should the attack take place in the heart of any major city. 

Dr Mike Foley is a geologist who has made a career of specialising in nuclear-related issues. He’s likewise warned that weapons-radioactive materials “could be used in terror acts as pollutants rather than as fissionables”. 

In other words, the real issue might not be the explosiveness of such weapons but rather their potential to create multiple no-go areas.

That’s because clearing up after an RDD attack is likely to be a formidable task. It might not only take an inordinately long time to counter the effects of serious radiation resulting from such a bomb, but the entire area would have to be quarantined, certainly for many months and, depending on both the nature of radioactive material employed and quantity, possibly for years.  

Were it to happen outside the Bank of England in London, for instance, the level of radiation would be the ultimate deciding factor. 

Not only buildings, but the entire grid of roads and sidewalks would need to be ripped up and, once the all clear is given, re-laid. 

Contaminated debris would be dealt with in the appropriate manner, in and of itself a formidable task on a relatively small group of islands that comprise the United Kingdom. 

It is axiomatic that costs would run into billions. 

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Robot used during an exercise run by the California National Guard in 2015 to practice dealing with a dirty bomb attack

The problem is, preventing a dirty bomb attack is also expensive. 

In fact, according to Foley, prevention is not being properly addressed precisely because of the immense cost and scale of the problem:

“All countries would need to expand coverage to everything including radon waste storage sites, medical waste and the rest...there is an incredible amount of radioactive waste about…not all of it safeguarded and in the Former Soviet Union, very badly.”

Of significant concern in this regard are the burgeoning numbers of incidents that involve internationally-linked nuclear smugglers. According to the IAEA, these are increasing exponentially by the year. 

Prior to his retirement as head of the IAEA in December 2009, Dr Mohamed Al Baradei disclosed that the Vienna-based UN watchdog was aware of hundreds of cases of nuclear smuggling annually (much of it linked to uranium or plutonium.) But this number likely reflects only the one in 10 or 12 cases that come to light. 

Simply put, for every smuggling case we know about, there are another dozen or more not detected. In almost every case listed, people of Islamic or Middle East extraction are shown as receiving parties.

It is worth mentioning that IAEA investigators believe that those involved from former Eastern bloc countries are rarely ideologically motivated. Rather, they’re interested only in the money and it is of little concern to many of them whether cities or people are contaminated by deadly radiation.

“The fear, essentially, is that the criminals may have no qualms about selling to Jihadist groups”, read the IAEA report.       Furthermore, the IAEA's smuggling figures did not include radiation sources that had simply gone missing.

“An average of one a day is reported to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission as lost, stolen or abandoned,’ it read. 

Also, there were still more than 1,000 radioactive sources unaccounted for in Iraq. 

In another case, of 25 sources stolen from the Krakatau steel company in Indonesia in October 2000, only three were ever recovered.

When sources such as these show up, they can appear in some unexpected places:

“In Tbilisi, Georgia, a taxi driver, Tedo Makeria was stopped by police in May 2003 and found to be carrying lead-lined boxes containing strontium-90 and caesium-137. (And in Belarus,) customs officials seized 26 radioactive cargoes between 1996 and 2003, six of them from Russia”, the IAEA disclosed.

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An exercise run by the California National Guard in 2015 to practice dealing with the effects of a dirty bomb attack

On the plus side, technology for mitigating the effects of a dirty bomb attack does exist.

There are pagers to detect radiation levels, special anti-radiation protective sprays and a gel designed to suck radioactive particles out of contaminated concrete.

Yet some scientists privately question whether this technology would really be up to the task of coping with a full-scale radiological disaster. 

Additionally, as the BBC’s Frank Gardner has noted:

“…until terrorists actually detonate a dirty bomb, the funding for dealing with such an attack is (limited).”

In summation, one can look to Washington’s Federation of American Scientists, which succinctly analysed the dirty bomb threat and reached three principle conclusions:

1). That “radiological attacks constitute a credible threat… materials that could be used for such attacks are stored in thousands of facilities around the US, many of which may not be adequately protected…”

2). “While radiological attacks would… not result in… thousands of fatalities,” they would kill some as well as contaminating large urban areas; 

3). “Materials that could easily be lost or stolen from US research institutions and commercial sites could contaminate tens of city blocks at a level that would require prompt evacuation and create terror in large communities even if radiation casualties were low… Since there are often no effective ways to decontaminate buildings that have been exposed at these levels, demolition may be the only practical solution.”

The final sentence puts the high (or one might say, comparatively low) cost of prevention into perspective:

“If such an event were to take place in a city like New York, it would result in losses of potentially trillions of dollars.”

Al J Venter has had more than 50 non-fiction titles published in Britain, the US and South Africa, many of them about military and insurgency-related developments in the Middle East and Africa. 

He is a specialist writer on nuclear warfare. To pick up a copy of his latest book, ‘Nuclear Terror: The Bomb and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Wrong Hands’, click here. Enter the code FNNT25 to receive a 25% discount, and visit Pen and Sword for more military-related titles.

Images: ‘Dirty Bomb’ by Splash Damage and an April 2015 dirty bomb exercise, both pictures from the California National Guard; cover image from the US Department of Energy

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