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Disarmament Diplomacy No. 73, Cover design by Paul Aston

Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 73, October - November 2003

Opinion & Analysis

A Sickening Episode: Nuclear Looting in Iraq and the Global Threat From Radiological Weapons

By Andy Oppenheimer


Looting of Iraq's major nuclear sites during the chaos following the occupation of the country by Coalition forces in spring 2003 highlighted the danger of radioactive materials falling into the hands of terrorists seeking to make radiological dispersion devices (RDDs - dubbed 'dirty bombs'). There is clearly potential for looted materials to be sold on by looters to terrorist groups seeking to make RDDs. The dirty bomb threat, however, is not new. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the US and British governments have repeatedly highlighted the threat from dirty bombs - and the US effort has been expanded to include efforts to prevent the diversion of non-fissile radioactive materials such as cesium-137.

Interest first arose from intelligence reports that Al Qaeda was exploring the use of radiological weapons; it grew with the discovery by US troops of detailed bomb-building instructions in Afghan caves used by Al Qaeda forces, and reached fever pitch with the arrest of Jose Padilla in June 2002, a US citizen with supposed Al Qaeda associations who was detained under suspicion of plotting an RDD attack. More recently, in June 2003, a Thai national was arrested in Bangkok with a reportedly large quantity - 30 kg - of cesium-137, although that amount has yet to be confirmed. And in July, three metal containers of cobalt-60 were stolen from a steel plant in eastern India.

Given the failure of US troops immediately to secure the sites, the initially stubborn resistance of the US to the reintroduction of UN inspectors, and the failure of Coalition administrators to deal with the aftermath of the widespread looting of dangerous materials, the Iraqi example is deeply troubling. In the worst case scenario, and by a hideous irony given the stated, primary objective of the war - the elimination of a threat to regional and global security posed by a regime said to have ties to terrorist networks - a golden opportunity for the acquisition of nuclear materials may have been presented to Al Qaeda and other outlaw groups. The fact we simply have to hope that this will not happen is an indication that something has gone badly awry.

This paper will examine the extent of looting in Iraq and assess the wider threat of radiological materials being acquired and used in RDDs by terrorists. While the threat has to be kept in perspective, and should certainly not by used to deflect attention from broader and graver issues of both non-proliferation and disarmament, the risk of radiological terrorism cannot be discounted, and can be assumed to be likely to grow unless concerted international action - in sharp distinction to the unhappy experience in Iraq - is forthcoming.

Nuclear Looting in Iraq

Looting of Iraq's main nuclear site - the al-Tuwaitha nuclear research complex 30 miles south of Baghdad - and at least six other nuclear sites threatened to produce the worst nuclear security crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union. In May and June, reports of radiation sickness and environmental contamination were overshadowed by the continued political controversy surrounding the Coalition's failure to quickly find Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

After several months of US opposition to the recall of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - or other UN inspectors - into Iraq, the IAEA was allowed back in at the end of May for a limited and heavily restricted mission: securing a small looted area - Location C - within the al-Tuwaitha facility. More than 500 tonnes of natural uranium and 1.8 tonnes of low-enriched uranium were stored at al-Tuwaitha, plus smaller amounts of highly radioactive cesium-137, cobalt-60 and strontium-90. These materials were left over from Iraq's original nuclear weapons programme conducted in the 1980s and were sealed under IAEA safeguards since after the 1991 Gulf War.

There have also been incidents at nuclear sites the IAEA was not permitted to investigate, where looters were reported to have emptied hundreds of containers of nuclear material. Looters, others handling the material and containers, and neighbourhoods where material has been dispersed, will have been contaminated in the time between the disappearance of materials and their return.

As many as 400 looters a day may have ransacked the al-Tuwaitha complex, regarded as the main site in Iraq's former nuclear weapons programme and covering an area of 48 hectares. According to local villagers, scientists and Republican Guard remnants abandoned the site at the start of the Coalition campaign. Raiders entered the site by cutting the surrounding barbed-wire fence. Seals placed at Iraqi nuclear sites by the IAEA during past inspections were tampered with and metal containers of 300-400 kg of natural and low-enriched uranium and uranium oxide (yellowcake - processed mined uranium) either stolen or tipped out and the containers used for domestic purposes, such as milking cows, washing clothes, and storing drinking water and food. Documents and laboratory equipment were taken. Other materials had been dumped on the floor. Some of the radioactive material was in powder form and could have been dispersed into the air through broken windows. People washing out the containers will have contaminated the nearby River Tigris, setting the stage for a massive health crisis. Children, sweltering in the heat of an Iraqi summer, cannot be prevented from cooling off in its waters.

While local people have claimed that looters were not after the uranium itself, some looters were seen making off with barrels of raw uranium and the isotopes that are meant for medical or industrial use. Many fear that some looters may have resold the emptied barrels from the facility to unsuspecting locals, kept in the dark about Saddam's nuclear program. Coalition forces have been repurchasing the barrels from residents at three dollars a barrel. US forces claim to have recovered about 100 barrels and five radiological devices possibly looted from the site. Many residents were still unaware of the dangers two months after the US-led coalition brought down Saddam's regime.

Another important looted facility is the Baghdad Nuclear Research Facility, which houses the remains of the Osirak reactor bombed by Israel in 1981 and the US in 1991; spent reactor fuel; and radioactive isotopes including cesium-137 and cobalt-60 - typical RDD materials. Other looted sites are the Ash Shaykhili Nuclear Facility, the Baghdad New Nuclear Design Center and the Tahadi Nuclear Establishment. The warehouses at Ash Shaykhili have been destroyed by ransacking and fire and the enrichment processing equipment is either missing or burnt.

In April, US troops were also reported to have discovered, below the al-Tuwaitha site, an underground complex of abandoned laboratories, warehouses, and bombproof offices - including buildings where levels of radiation were so high they could not be occupied. At least 200 radioactive isotopes are stored there. Many drums of radioactive material, including plutonium, were found behind steel doors in Building 39, a permanent storage site for low-level nuclear waste.

IAEA inspectors visited the al-Tuwaitha site several times before the March 2003 war and, following the 1991 Gulf war, were supposed to have removed all known Iraqi stocks of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium. The lock had also been broken on Building 55 and readings consistent with thorium, cobalt and cesium were recorded. Some cylinders were emitting so much gamma and neutron radiation that the team could not interpret the results. David Albright, former IAEA Action Team inspector in Iraq from 1992 to 1997, believed radioactive material could have been deliberately left behind there to expose people to dangerous levels: "Three hours at levels like that and people begin to vomit. You couldn't do scientific work in levels like that. You would die."

Limited IAEA Mission

Only seven IAEA inspectors were allowed, over a two-week period in June and under tight US restrictions, to investigate the reports of looting at al-Tuwaitha. The inspectors were not permitted to undertake full-scale inspections of nuclear facilities, to look into the disappearance of materials from other facilities, to measure environmental contamination, or look into possible radiation sickness among residents. Instead, they were limited to determining what was and is still missing from Location C and what it will take to recapture that material. They have had to repackage and reseal it, thereby securing just one part of one facility.

Al-Tuwaitha housed several research reactors, plutonium processors and uranium enrichment facilities. Much of the IAEA team's work was concentrated on Building 1 at Location C, which housed a range of uranium compounds. The inspectors confirmed that many containers of low-enriched, natural, and depleted uranium were missing. They also found that, as had been reported in the media, materials had been scattered on the floor and containers had been emptied.

Although the IAEA reported on July 16 that it had accounted for most of the looted nuclear material, it could not account for at least 10 kg of low-grade uranium, which may have been dispersed. A few grams of natural uranium compound could have remained in the containers that looters had tipped out. The team has checked conditions against inventories it has of yellowcake, and low-grade uranium, and has repackaged the materials that were strewn on the floor. If any of the depleted uranium stocks have been removed and dispersed, it may cause long-term health problems. The effects of depleted uranium on troops and civilians have been documented in recent years and it is suspected, though not proven, of being a cause of the range of symptoms known as Gulf War syndrome.

US Resistance

The US only asked the IAEA back to Iraq following reports that uranium and other materials had been emptied and the radioactive containers, and also their contents, taken away. The IAEA Director-General, Mohamed ElBaradei, had made repeated warnings that a radiological and humanitarian emergency was brewing. The US administration also rejected the readmission into Iraq of the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), which had responsibility for finding chemical and biological weapons as well as production facilities. Instead, the Americans said they would deal with the disarmament of Iraq themselves, conducted by a US-backed team of 1,400 experts tasked with continuing the search for WMD. As Mohamed ElBaradei commented before the IAEA commenced its limited Location C mission: "The Coalition says that they will take care of the safety and the security of radioactive sources... We are ready to help in case our help is needed."

The Iraq Survey Team, due to publish a report to Congress in September, comprises US military personnel, government intelligence analysts, private contractors, and around 300 weapons experts from the United States, Britain and Australia - 100 more than the scientific complement in the US 75th Exploitation Task Force, which was in charge of the weapons search effort until the end of May.

At the time of writing in late August, best indications are that, while it will have been unable to locate any WMD, the Survey Team's September report will present a wealth of fresh information - based on interviews conducted, and documents acquired, by the Team - about Iraq's WMD programmes. This material may include evidence suggesting that Iraqi commanders were ordered to attack Coalition troops with chemical weapons.

The Human Costs of Delay and Inaction

There has been growing concern over radiation poisoning in the neighbourhoods near al-Tuwaitha. Local doctors have reported cases of radiation sickness in nearby villages. There are also fears that local farms as well as the water supply may have been contaminated in the post-war chaos. According to local doctors, as many as 2,000 residents in the villages near the site have been showing the tell-tale symptoms of acute radiation sickness - nosebleeds, rashes, hair loss, respiratory distress, and vomiting. People have drunk water stored in plastic barrels stolen from the complex. One local fruit merchant's children fell ill after drinking the water.

Doctors fear that hundreds could have been contaminated and may have ingested radioactive material. An Iraqi nuclear engineer and a founder of the al-Tuwaitha site, Dr. Hamid Al-Bah'ly, interviewed on Al-Jazeera TV, witnessed the spread of nuclear contamination firsthand. At one home, Al-Bah'ly discovered radioactive contamination in clothes and beds. In others, he recorded radiation levels 500 to 600 times higher than acceptable levels. Iraqi and foreign doctors are to conduct a major health survey in the affected areas near al-Tuwaitha; during June there was talk of evacuating villagers. Radiation sickness aside, the risk of Iraqis who have been contaminated contracting leukaemia and other cancers at a later date appears very high.

Keeping Your Hair On: The Relaxed US Position

US officials have said the al-Tuwaitha plant posed "minimal risk." The military spokesman said: "We have had folks there at the site, my deputy went there and his teeth are still there, and his hair is still in." The IAEA was informed by the US that "the occupying powers are responsible for the health and safety of the Iraqi people, including nuclear health and safety issues." This benign statement does not reveal fully the dispute between the US administration and the agency, which first raised the danger posed by potential looting of the al-Tuwaitha site and others in early April.

An IAEA spokesperson, Mark Gwozdecky, observed: "If this happened anywhere else in the world, we would demand an immediate inspection." Agency teams are better qualified than US troops to inspect Iraqi nuclear sites and search for radioactive materials. The inspectors have inventories of all nuclear material and records of which stocks were sealed and where. Russia, for example, has suggested that only UN inspectors can pronounce Iraq free of all WMD, the alleged existence of which was President Bush's main justification for the conflict.

Justification for invading a country suspected of developing and possessing WMD, or of supplying WMD materials and weapons to terrorists, must be judged against the entire situation of countries possessing nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological (CBRN) weapons. While the US and UK have set themselves up as the saviours of the "free world" and have pitted themselves against any CBRN proliferators wherever they may arise, their own continued possession of nuclear weapons in particular make their argument increasingly hollow. Nuclear proliferation - which has resulted, in the past 50-plus years of the existence of nuclear weapons, in the emergence of surprisingly few new nuclear nations - has often resulted from countries wanting the same level of power afforded by the possession of nuclear weapons, in order to wield a big stick in their own regions. It could be said that no nation has the right to object to any other going for the nuclear option until it has made wholehearted efforts to itself disarm.

The Post-9/11 Context: Governments Crank Up The Dirty Bomb Threat

The entire spectrum of threats from terrorists seeking unconventional weapons, too readily described as WMD (a currently overworked term that was originally used to describe nuclear weapons) has been brought into the public consciousness since September 11, 2001. The US and UK governments and the media have made much out of CBRN threats and rumours of threats. In spring 2003, in the weeks leading up to war in Iraq, the UK government in various ministerial speeches issued at least half a dozen warnings, none of them referring to a specific threat of an attack. Troops were deployed at and around London's Heathrow Airport in the days immediately preceding the conflict. Before and after the earlier discovery of small traces of the toxin ricin in a north London apartment in January 2003, speeches, reports, and analyses of the CBRN terrorist threat gathered momentum. Government ministers warned that it was only a matter of time before a dirty bomb would be used.

The first of these warnings came in late 2002. On November 11, Prime Minister Tony Blair warned that groups such as Al Qaeda were looking to attack with "ever more dramatic and devastating effects." This reinforced the message in an early draft of a Home Office document mistakenly distributed to journalists, which warned: "Maybe they will try to develop a so-called dirty bomb, or some kind of poison gas; maybe they will try to use boats or trains rather than planes. The bottom line is that we simply cannot be sure." The document added: "We cannot be sure of when or where or how terrorists will strike. But we can be sure they will try." The Home Office said the government stood by the warning, but ministers removed the section on the dirty bomb and poison gas from the final version to ensure that people remain focused on the wider threat. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, said Britain was "literally in the front line" in the war against terror.

The threat of terrorists acquiring radiological weapons has since been emphasised by the US and UK in their pursuit of the 'war against terror'. The growth in intensity of US militarism is being justified by that seemingly endless campaign. That no such weapon has yet been used seems not to count in their assessment; however, it is possible that if a RDD attack actually does happen, the voting publics in both countries will have acquired so much "WMD fatigue" after so many warnings that their response may be inadequate. Alternatively, the plethora of information and warnings is making some people too frightened to leave their homes, except perhaps to buy 'protection'; the gas-mask, NBC-protection and radiation-detector trade has gone through the roof in the US, and even in cynical Britain, sales of these goods have increased.

As the integrity of both governments has been called into question by both the failure, to date, to find WMD in Iraq, and growing doubts over the veracity and probity of pre-war intelligence claims, their warnings about other WMD threats, even genuine ones, may no longer be believed.

Radiological Weapons: How Real Is The Threat?

Although the material looted in Iraq is unsuitable for making nuclear fission bombs, it will suit terrorists wanting to build RDDs. These devices comprise conventional high explosive (such as Semtex, which requires only small amounts for a very big bang, is easy to handle and hard to detect) and either spent fuel from nuclear reactors (usually uranium or plutonium) or radioisotopes used in industrial radiography, medical radiotherapy, industrial irradiators and thermo-electric generators (such as cesium-137, a silvery metal isotope used commonly in medical radiotherapy. It emits powerful gamma radiation and has a half-life of three decades). Thermo-electric generators are small power sources used to deliver electricity to a remote location, such as a military base.

On detonation, the device would spew the radioactive material into the environment. The effects would range from hundreds of deaths and injuries - including radiation sickness - in the immediate vicinity of the explosion, to minimal immediate injuries, long-term risk of cancer in individuals in the contaminated area, and (in most cases) extensive decontamination of the area. The main effect, in any case, would be panic, chaos and economic disruption. The emergency services may have to deal with secondary devices and multiple incidents.

Much depends on the amount and type of radioactive material used and the extent of, and conditions for, dispersal. In a computer simulation of a dirty bomb attack on New York, the detonation of 3,500 curies (units of radiation) of cesium chloride in Lower Manhattan - about 50 grams - would spread radioactive fallout over 60 city blocks. One curie is the amount of radiation equal to the disintegration of 37 billion atoms - 37 billion becquerels - per second. It is a very large amount of radiation.

Cesium-137 stays in the body for decades, concentrating in muscle where it irradiates muscle cells and nearby organs. Radioactive sources that emit intense gamma-rays, such as cobalt-60 and cesium-137, are similar to X-rays inasmuch as they can penetrate clothing, skin, and other materials - but are more energetic and destructive than X-rays. When gamma-rays reach targeted cells, they cause lethal chemical changes inside the cell.

Plutonium and americium are also used commercially and in research. Plutonium and americium are referred to as alpha emitters as, when they decay, they throw off a very large particle - an alpha particle. Plutonium also has non-military functions. During the 1960s and 1970s, the federal government encouraged the use of plutonium in university facilities studying nuclear engineering and nuclear physics. Americium is used in smoke detectors, and in devices that find oil sources. Alpha particles emitted by plutonium, americium and other elements also pose health risks. Although these particles cannot penetrate clothing or skin, they are harmful if ingested or emitted by inhaled materials.

The Chechen Dirty Bomb Incident

The only known example of such a device being laid (but not detonated) was by Chechen separatists in December 1995, when they placed a shielded cancer treatment device containing cesium-137, packaged up with dynamite, in a Moscow park. The incident began when a group of Chechen rebels contacted a Russian television station and boasted of its ability to construct a radiological weapon (the Chechen separatist leader, Dzhohar Dudayev, said his followers already had "a nuclear weapons capability"). The terrorists then alerted the press that they had buried a 13.5-kg cache of radiological materials in Moscow's Ismailovsky Park. On the very spot the rebels indicated, authorities found a partially buried container of cesium. Dudayev had given the names of three other sites besides Izmailovsky Park where radiological materials had been placed, and stated that these sites also held conventional explosives. Neither the Chechens who planted it there nor the original source of the cesium has ever been identified.

Sources in the Russian Security Council said that radiological materials could have been diverted from an isotope storage plant managed by Radon, a Russian firm in Grozny, the Chechen capital. The Chechen separatists could have acquired the cesium-137 from a myriad sources, however - such as the chemical, agrochemical, gas, and oil industries, or from almost any hospital in Russia. The incident has been passed off as a stunt apparently designed to show how vulnerable Moscow was to a dirty bomb attack. In December 1998, a container emitting high levels of radiation was planted on a railway line. A mine attached to the container was defused, but the identity of the radioactive substance was not revealed.

Insecure Radioactive Sources: The FSU Bargain Store

Terrorists looking for bargains could hardly do better than in the former Soviet Union (FSU), although radioactive material for such a bomb can be found in almost every country, including the United States, where radioactive waste material is located at more than 70 commercial nuclear power sites in 31 states. The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reports that US companies have lost track of nearly 1,500 radioactive sources within the country since 1996, and that more than half were never recovered. A single spent fuel assembly typically can be transported only in a shielded shipping cask weighing many tons; if, however, such a package could be acquired by terrorists or sabotaged during transport in an urban area, thousands of latent cancer fatalities could result.

In Russia, security for nuclear waste is especially poor, the general insecurity of nuclear installations remains a serious concern, and the potential for diversion and actual use by terrorists is real indeed. The Soviet Union produced an estimated 1,200 tonnes of HEU and up to 400 tonnes of plutonium for direct use in nuclear weapons. Nuclear material is stored at a range of military and civilian sites, many of which have no better security than ordinary industrial facilities. As Russia is dismantling around 2,000 nuclear weapons per year, its nuclear materials stockpile is increasing.

Orphaned radioactive sources - those outside official regulatory control - are of greatest concern. The Soviet Union was also known to have produced tens of thousands of radioactive devices for uses ranging from medical diagnostics to military communications, and many were simply abandoned after the Soviet break-up in 1991. Some regions are so littered with such devices that published tourist guides caution travellers to watch out for them. There have been dozens of attempts by smugglers and terrorists to gain access to Russia's vast nuclear arsenal in the 10 years since the disintegration of the USSR. Thefts of low-grade radiological material have been more frequent: some 17 reported incidents of theft of radioactive materials from the FSU in 2002, with an estimated 40 kg of weapons-grade material stolen over the last 10 years.

According to US nuclear officials, Chechen rebels have stolen radioactive metals over a period of 12 months, possibly including plutonium, cesium, strontium and low-enriched uranium, from the new Volgodonskaya nuclear power station in the southern region of Rostov.

In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, several attempts to steal or smuggle nuclear material have been documented. Porous borders with the separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia have become thoroughfares for smuggled contraband, according to Georgian and US government officials. Four years ago, a sting operation in the port city of Batumi netted three kilograms of HEU - one of the largest seizures ever made of material that could be used in a nuclear bomb. Local officials are also suspected of participating in smuggling. In June 2003, Georgian police seized two metal containers filled with cesium-137 and strontium-90, plus a vial containing mustard gas during a raid near the country's capital, Tbilisi, on May 31.

To head off future thefts, in 2002 Georgia launched an aggressive campaign to find abandoned radioactive devices and store them in a secure, central location. In July, dozens of Georgian workers armed with hand-held radiation detectors swept an abandoned Soviet missile base near the capital city of Tbilisi, part of a grid-by-grid search that has now covered 15 percent of the country, including all major population centers. The search turned up small amounts of cesium 137 and strontium 90: in tools, calibration devices, and night-vision equipment. While many items were unusable, more than 200 pieces of radioactive equipment were recovered, 11 of which had massive radioactive potency. Of those 11, six were strontium-powered generators once used in military communications equipment.

In the 1970s, scientists in the former Soviet Union developed scores of powerful radioactive devices and dispatched them to the countryside for a project known cryptically as Gamma Kolos, or "Gamma Ears." The project's aim was to expose plants to radiation and measure the effects. Some of the tests were aimed at simulating farming conditions after a nuclear war. In rugged eastern Georgia, researchers bombarded wheat seed with radiation to see if the plants would grow better. All the experiments used a common source of radiation, a lead-shielded canister containing enough cesium-137, US officials now say, to contaminate a small city. Any one container could give off in a small space more than 10,000 curies.

International nuclear experts have begun quietly searching former Soviet republics to recover the remains of the Gamma Kolos project before someone else does. There are anything from 100 to 1,000 missing devices, not counting stocks of cesium in loose storage in Russia. There has been a series of accidents in which civilians stumbled upon abandoned radioactive devices and suffered severe radiation burns. In at least one instance, the radioactive device had drawn the interest of local businessmen hoping to sell it on the black market.

The Soviet project is viewed as especially dangerous because its cesium devices could be easily exploited for terrorism: small, portable and possessing a potent core of cesium chloride in the form of pellets or, more frequently, a fine powder. The IAEA recently led a 10-month sweep of Georgia, beginning in June 2002, to locate, recover, secure and recycle orphan sources. Officials from Georgia's Nuclear and Radiation Safety Service were searching in cooperation with the IAEA for radioactive objects ranging from rifle scopes that contain small amounts of radium to radioisotope thermoelectric generators powered by strontium-90 that emit over 40,000 curies of radiation each. The search turned up five of the Gamma Kolos devices, all of which are now in safe storage. Four more devices have been found in Moldova. Elsewhere in the FSU the search is hampered by a lack of funding and a dearth of information. The authorities claim that none of the cesium devices has been stolen, but in some Central Asian states there are no records showing how many of the devices exist or what has happened to them. The canisters were mounted on tractors and towed directly into fields for planting, they said. Wheat seeds were fed into the machine for a jolt of gamma radiation before being dropped into furrows to speed up germination and increase yields. Soviet scientists sent the devices to other republics, from Moldova to Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.

Recent commitments by the Russian government to cooperate with the US in the retrieval of missing cesium devices reflect a growing awareness that dirty bombs are also a growing problem for Russia - considering its only known threatened RDD attack came from Chechen rebels, whose terrorist campaign continues apace.

After the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, the second-worst civilian nuclear accident involved a medical radiotherapy machine containing cesium-137. Villagers in the Brazilian town of Goiania found the machine in an abandoned clinic in 1987 and broke it apart to salvage the metal. Within days nearly 30 people suffered serious radiation injuries and four of them later died. Hundreds of others were treated for exposure and dozens of houses were demolished in the cleanup.

Searching for Radioactive Needles in a Haystack? Readiness to Combat an RDD attack on the United States

Considering the potential proliferation of such materials, and the evident and declared determination of groups like Al Qaeda to cause maximum injury and havoc, it is surprising that a RDD attack has not yet taken place. Should such an attack take place, how prepared is the US?

More than 5 million shipping containers, 2 million rail cars and some 11 million trucks go into the US every year. In January 2002, a 120-kg package giving off 9,400 curies of radioactive iridium, was shipped via FedEx from Paris to Louisiana where it was found to be leaking radiation. The US government is introducing the use of new, "smart" radiation detectors at border checkpoints, ports, and airports. But because there are other ways for nuclear materials to get into the US, an extensive radiation detection system distributed throughout major cities may be the only sure way of detecting the movement of radioactive material or a radiological device.

Traditional radiation detectors - Geiger counters - do not identify specific radiation emitters. Every radioactive element gives off a certain unique pattern or "signature" of energy, so the new gamma ray detectors have been designed to use germanium and cadmium zinc telluride, providing the ability to discern isotopes in weapons - like uranium or plutonium - from a wide range of naturally occurring isotopes. The new detectors will therefore give security and law enforcement personnel a better way to screen out potentially false alarms, such as a shipping container that contains only minute amounts of cesium for medical experiments. Much depends, however, on whether the detectors will be distributed to first-responders: firefighters, emergency rescue and medical technicians, and police officers. At about $20,000 to $30,000 per detector, all but the largest of city fire departments and emergency organizations would likely be unable to afford them. However, most fire departments, under federal requirements for hazardous materials, are expected to test for radioactive chemicals.

In the event of an attack, the newly established Department of Homeland Security has advised people to quickly move away from the immediate area, at least several blocks from the explosion, and tune in to local radio or TV broadcasts for instructions from emergency officials. The affected area would be cordoned off from surrounding areas and all people, buildings and surfaces decontaminated. This could take months. Many recommend shutting down external ventilation systems in the aftermath of an attack. An attack with radioactive material could overwhelm local hospitals with people seeking treatment. So the Department of Health and Human Services is recruiting hundreds of doctors to add to the volunteer teams it maintains to respond to a terrorist attack.

Some believe that the cost of decontamination could exceed the value of the contaminated property and that it cannot be assumed that people will be willing to return to 'contaminated' areas. Even after an extensive cleanup, workers in Florida are still refusing to return to buildings that received anthrax letters in October 2001. Also, some radiological materials bind chemically to surfaces, making a large-scale cleanup very difficult.

As radiological devices explode in the same way as conventional bombs, all explosions would have to be monitored immediately for radiation. The Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which would take the lead at the federal level in responding to a radiological incident, plans to recruit more scientists to handle decontamination and evacuation, and to expand the Nuclear Emergency Search Teams (NEST) to seek and destroy suspect devices. These ad hoc nuclear response teams can be called up from some 1,000 highly trained experts.4 Team members using gamma- and neutron-detectors would fan out along a matrix of the threat region to detect the bomb. Once found, the bomb would be X-rayed and otherwise analyzed to determine its characteristics. It would be surrounded by a tent enclosure several tens of feet in height and width, then filled with a special foam to contain the radioactive material if the bomb exploded during defusing.

It is difficult to restrict the sale of household items containing small amounts of radioactive materials, but the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering new security regulations for portable industrial measurement tools that contain small amounts. About 50 gauges are reported stolen each year out of the more than 22,000 that are in use. Since 1990, about 450 gauges have been reported stolen. Portable gauge licensees are required to use at least two independent physical controls to secure gauges whenever they are left unsupervised. For example, a licensee would be required to secure a gauge by storing it in a locked van and tethering it to the van by a steel cable.

Making Up For Lost Time: the US Strategy for Securing Nuclear Materials

The US government became aware of the problem of radioisotope proliferation in the late 1990s but decided to focus on what was regarded at the time as more serious threats: securing weapons-grade uranium and plutonium (for real nuclear bombs) as well as the vast stocks of Soviet chemical weapons.

The problem of proliferation from the former Soviet Union was sufficient for some $20 billion to be allocated to Russia in June by the G-8 powers towards protecting or dismantling its WMD. Under the so-called '10-plus-10-over-10' programme, the US will raise up to $10 billion over 10 years and the remaining $10 billion will be contributed jointly by Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. The main goals are to dispose of nuclear material, decommission chemical weapons, dismantle decommissioned nuclear submarines, and employ former weapons scientists. The US has sponsored programmes, most notable the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, for the past 11 years. Bureaucracy and restricted access to FSU sites have limited their success. Russia will be the initial focus of attempts to stop proliferation and address nuclear safety issues, but help could be extended to other former Soviet states.

Radioactive sources that are outside official regulatory control, known as "orphaned" radioactive sources, are a widespread problem in the FSU. According to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), US companies have lost track of nearly 1,500 radioactive sources within the FSU since 1996, and more than half were never recovered.

The US and Russia also agreed in June to cooperate in seeking out and securing potentially millions of sources of radioactive materials scattered within the FSU. Under this agreement, Russia will provide information on abandoned sources of materials that could pose a security threat. The United States will provide $40 million over two years to help find the sources, and the IAEA will manage the program.

However, a report from the independent Congressional General Accounting Office (GAO) in July 2002 said that US efforts to control the smuggling of nuclear and radioactive material in foreign countries were poorly coordinated and haphazardly administered, resulting in foul-ups that have left needed equipment idle in packing crates. International programmes were often more substantial than the safeguards at domestic borders, where US Customs Service inspectors rely mostly on hand-held pagers to detect radioactive material.

The GAO examined programmes administered by six federal agencies that spent a combined total of $86 million in about 30 countries between 1992 and 2001 to help them monitor and control the movement of radioactive materials that could be used in nuclear weapons or RDDs. The assistance, mostly to Russia, former Soviet republics, and Central and Eastern European countries, was used to buy detection devices and other equipment, technical assistance and training. The investigators found that no agency coordinated the programmes, which resulted in the absence of an overall strategy, bureaucratic overlap and duplication, and marked differences in the quality of equipment given to different countries. For example, the Defense and Energy departments gave Russia neutron-emission monitors for detecting plutonium, but officials were often not trained to operate the equipment they received. Several State Department-supplied vans with radiation detection equipment had been left idle because they could not be operated in cold weather, or because they were too expensive to supply with fuel. The vans cost about $90,000 each. In Lithuania, the US Embassy stashed radiation detectors in the basement for two years until the United States and Lithuania agreed on the purchase of a $12,600 power supply.


The sudden availability of radioactive substances at various sites in Iraq is only one scenario that heightens the RDD threat. Nuclear security problems still abound in the FSU and smuggling of nuclear materials, having reached a peak in the 1990s, continues in the FSU and also in Europe. Nuclear security is also found wanting in the US. Test scenarios (mock terrorist attacks) found key, high-profile and doubtless tempting facilities such as the Los Alamos National Laboratory easy to penetrate. The TA-18 facility at Los Alamos has failed several mock terrorist force-on-force tests, including the latest, conducted in August 2002. If the attack had been real, terrorists could have exited the site with them bomb-grade nuclear materials as has happened in previous security tests. Or they could have simply effected a suicide-bombing, resulting in the dispersal of highly radioactive materials.

In the disturbing case study of Iraq, the security situation there was greatly exacerbated by the invasion of the country, leading to looting on a mass scale. While this is an unusual example, such a collapse of law-and-order is hardly unprecedented and should surely have been predicted and planned for to a greater extent than the evidence suggests. Even if no diversion of RDD-usable material has in fact taken place, the glaring disparity between the cranked-up rhetoric over the 'dirty bomb' threat and the complacent, 'keep your hair on' attitude of Coalition forces sends a damaging and confusing political signal.

From a humanitarian, health and environmental perspective, such complacency - taken in combination with a distinct lack of commitment to transparency and independent investigation - will doubtless fuel allegations of moral, and even religious and racist, double-standards. As in the case of UN sanctions against Iraq - resulting, particularly before the oil-for-food programme began operation, in hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties - the suspicion will doubtless be housed that the looting of a nuclear facility similar to al-Tuwaitha in a predominantly white, predominantly Christian country would have met with a markedly different response. This may well be nonsense - but the political, and eventually terrorist, consequences, may prove all too real.

It also remains to be seen if, over time, and in the face of more organised international non-proliferation and safety-and-security efforts, terrorists will continue to try to acquire such materials - certainly, the likely risks to their health would not be an issue for fanatical groups such as Al Qaeda - or maintain emphasis on the tried and trusted methods of attack using conventional explosives (or, as in the horrific case of September 11, everyday commercial vehicles such as airplanes).

The group perhaps nearest to setting off a RDD is, apart from Al Qaeda, the Chechen separatists. However, as witnessed by the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo sect in March 1995 and the Oklahoma bombing in April 1995, terrorism can come from unanticipated quarters. The anthrax attacks that followed hard on the heels of the September 11 attacks still remain unsolved - but evidence has grown that a US citizen with no terrorist affiliations could be the perpetrator. The terrorist threat - from both CBRN and conventional weapons - is therefore not confined to the usual 'Islamist' suspects.

To ensure such groups are not able to use radiological weapons, improved intelligence, increased readiness - which will require increased funding and training - and other anti-terrorist countermeasures would have to be stepped up. The factors that have produced 'Islamist' terrorism will also have to be addressed; invading countries believed to be developing CBRN weapons will not bring this dangerous phenomenon to an end - rather, it will act as a catalyst for further terrorist recruitment, with the possibility of even deadlier terrorist weapons.

List of Main Sources

1. Al-Tuwaitha Nuclear Center al-Aseel/al-Diyalla Facility, Nuclear capabilities of Iraq, IAEA Plan Of Action: http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/iraq/facility/tuwaitha.htm; http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/iraq/un/iaeaplan.html.

2. "The IAEA in Iraq, Past Activities and Findings," Garry B. Dillon, Iraq Action Team, IAEA Bulletin, 44/2/2002, first published in the report, Iraq: A New Approach, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: http://www.ceip.org; http://www.ciaonet.org/wps/ceip01/ceip01j.pdf (password access only).

3. Securitywatch (International Relations and Security Network, Center for Security Studies, Zurich, Switzerland), June 21, 2003: http://www.isn.ethz.ch.

4. "Missing Iraq uranium 'secured'," BBC News online, June 21, 2003: http://news.bbc.co.uk.

5. "Iraq: US Troops Find Heavy Looting at Baghdad Nuclear Site." Global Security Newswire, Nuclear Threat Initiative, May 5, 2003: http://www.nti.org/index.html.

6. "UN Agency Wants to Investigate Iraq Nuclear Looting," Louis Charbonneau, Global Policy Forum, May 5, 2003: http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/issues/iraq/

7. Iraq Watch Bulletin, "We Still Face the Menace of Iraq's Hidden Horrors", Volume 2, Issue 3, May-June 2003: http://www.iraqwatch.org/bulletins/vol2iss3may03.htm.

8. Report on plutonium and other radioisotopes found at the al-Tuwaitha complex, Carl Prine, embedded reporter, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, April 9, 2003: http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/tribune-review/news/s_132913.html.

9. "Iraqis complain of illness near nuclear facility," CNN, May 16 and May 19, 2003: http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/meast/05/18/elbaradei.iraq.

10. Dr. Hamid Al-Bah'ly, "Iraq After the War," interview on Al-Jazeera TV, May 7, 2003.

11. "Iraq: ElBaradei Expresses Concern Over Nuclear Site Looting Reports." Global Security Newswire, May 19, 2003: http://www.nti.org/d_newswire/issues/newswires/2003_5_19.html.

12. "Weapons of Mass Disruption: Radiological Devices," Andy Oppenheimer, Special Report, Jane's Terrorism & Security Monitor, May 2002 (subscription or author access only): http://www.janes.com.

13. "Radiological Dispersal Devices: Effects and Scenarios," Andy Oppenheimer, Jane's Chem-bio Web, August 22, 2003.

14. "Stronger Controls Needed to Prevent Terrorist 'Dirty Bombs', Vienna Conference Urges Better Security, Surveillance and Regulation." The International Conference on Security of Radioactive Sources, March 10-13, 2003, Vienna, Austria: http://www.iaea.org/worldatom.

15. Testimony of Dr. Henry Kelly, President, Federation of American Scientists, before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, March 6, 2002. "Dirty Bombs: response to a threat," FAS Public Interest Report: http://www.fas.org/faspir/2002/v55n2/dirtybomb.htm.

16. "The dirty bomb threat: perspectives and countermeasures," by the Department of State. American Nuclear Society Sessions on Radiological Terrorism, American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting, November 2002: http://eed.llnl.gov/ans/Cutler/cutler_paper.html.

17. "Raid in Georgia triggers 'dirty bomb' fears: Police seize radioactive materials," CDI Russia Weekly, Center for Defense Information, June 17, 2003: http://www.cdi.org/russia/262-12.cfm.

18. "New fears Chechens may seek nukes. Suspicious events concern Russians." David Filipov, Nuclear.no.com, Russian Nuclear Nonproliferation Site, December 2, 2002: http://nuclearno.com/text.asp?4526.

19. "Hunting a Deadly Soviet Legacy, Concerns About 'Dirty Bomb' Drive Efforts to Find Radioactive Cesium," Washington Post, November 11, 2002: http://www.washingtonpost.com.

20. "The Hunt for Hot Stuff," Richard Stone, Smithsonian, March 2003: http://www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/smithsonian/issues03/mar03/

21. "To US From Sweden - Irradiation," Nuclear Monitor World Information Service on Energy (WISE) and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS), #561 North American edition, January 11, 2002: http://www.nirs.org.

22. Ralph James, Associate Lab Director, Energy, Environment and National Security Group at Brookhaven National Laboratories, interviewed by ABC News on "Technology to Spot Radiation Bombs." http://abcnews.go.com/sections/scitech/DailyNews/nukedetector020312.html.

23. US Department of Energy, Order DOE 5530.2, 9-20-91, Nuclear Emergency Search Team: http://www.directives.doe.gov/pdfs/doe/doetext/oldord/5530/o55302.pdf.

24. "Nuclear incident response in the US," Andy Oppenheimer, Jane's Chem-Bio Web, August 27, 2002.

25. "US Response: Accelerate Nuclear Terrorism Response, Official Says," Global Security Newswire, July 3, 2002: http://www.nti.org/d_newswire/issues/2002/7/3/4s.html.

26. Conference Proceedings, "Strengthening Cooperative Threat Reduction in the Northern Region," Stockholm Peace Research Institute and the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Stockholm, Sweden, May 20, 2003: http://projects.sipri.se/nuclear/sctr_stockholm.pdf.

27. The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, Monterey Institute Center for Nonproliferation Studies: http://www.nti.org/db/nisprofs/belarus/forasst/ctr/ctrgen.htm.

28. "IAEA Cites Inadequate Control of World's Radioactive Materials," International Atomic Energy Agency, US Department of State International Information Programs, June 25, 2002. http://usinfo.state.gov/topical/pol/terror/02062612.htm.

29. "Nuclear Nonproliferation: US Efforts to Combat Nuclear Smuggling," Testimony Before the Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Committee on Armed Services, US Senate. United States General Accounting Office, July 31 2002. http://web.elastic.org/~fche/mirrors/cryptome.org/gao-02-989t.htm.

30. Testimony of Danielle Brian, Executive Director, Project On Government Oversight, on "Inadequate Security at the Department of Energy Nuclear Weapons Complex," before the House Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations, June 24, 2003: http://www.pogo.org.

Andy Oppenheimer is a consultant in nuclear, biological and chemical weapons for Jane's Information Group.

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