Global Security Newswire
Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues
U.S. Anti-"Dirty Bomb" Effort Has Cost $1.5B
The U.S. government has spent $1.5 billion in the 10 years since the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes on an effort aimed at blocking the proliferation of materials that could be used in a radiological "dirty bomb" attack, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on Sunday (see GSN, July 21).
Counterterrorism officials fear that extremists could build a weapon that would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material that can be found in devices used in medicine, industry and other sectors. While not nearly as lethal as a nuclear weapon, a dirty bomb would be far easier to acquire and could cause significant environmental, public health and psychological damage.
"A gram of any radiological material set off with a single firecracker would be enough to freak out most Americans," one U.S. nuclear security source said.
Public fears of a major nuclear attack have been warped by the media and shaped by history, according to FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate chief Vahid Majidi.
"People think of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Americans my age grew up with 'duck and cover' and so they think of a big bomb, and that's the fear," Majidi said. "They see [the television show] "24" ... and it does seem scary. But in reality, building a nuclear device is not a simple task" (see GSN, March 7, 2005).
"Ultimately, I'm not as worried about a nuclear detonation because the probability is relatively low," he continued.
Fears, though, persist of a lower-impact radioactive strike. The International Atomic Energy Agency identified 351 cases around the world of "unauthorized possession and related criminal activities" involving nuclear and other sensitive materials between January 2993 and December 2009.
Even as the trafficking of nuclear materials has been reported in such varied countries as Ethiopia, Myanmar and Portugal, Washington has emphasized deterring and interdicting such activities in Georgia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates -- countries that serve as key international transportation centers with well-documented black market sectors.
In the last decade, Georgian authorities are known to have confiscated smuggled radioactive sources on 11 separate occasions (see GSN, Nov. 22, 2010). In February, two traffickers on their way to the Turkish border crossing in Georgia were caught with a cannister of iridium 192 that they reportedly aspired to sell for $5 million.
"Most of the [arrested traffickers] were looking for Muslim buyers. There's a common rumor that there's a big market for black-market radioactive material in Turkey. But I don't know of a successful sale," Georgian antismuggling official Archil Pavlenishvili said.
Almost 50 percent of the thwarted Georgian smuggling incidents involved cesium 137. In two instances, the material in question was highly enriched uranium.
"The HEU amounts were small" and would not have been enough to cause a large nuclear detonation, according to Pavlenishvili. "But on the other hand, the fact that such weapons-grade radioactive material is still for sale on the black market is alarming."
"There's a security cat-and-mouse game going on," said National Nuclear Security Administration chief Thomas D'Agostino, whose semiautonomous Energy Department branch has deployed radiation monitors at land borders and seaports around the world as part of U.S. efforts to prevent nuclear smuggling.
"Georgia is a choke point," the NNSA head said. "Trade for thousands of years has been going through that area and it's a natural transition point and gateway between Russia and the Middle East and Europe. ... So that's the place where you put your net."
The United States has fielded roughly 2,000 stationary and transportable radiation sensors in no fewer than 19 nations, the Inquirer reported.
President Obama has made averting a nuclear or radiological terrorist attack a cornerstone of his national security agenda.
"Black-market trade in nuclear secrets and nuclear materials abound. The technology to build a bomb has spread. Terrorists are determined to buy, build, or steal," the president said in his widely noted April 2009 Prague address. "This is the most immediate and extreme threat to global security."
In his recently released book, "The Triple Agent," Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick wrote of a summer 2009 incident in which U.S. telephone surveillance recorded two Taliban leaders talking about "nuclear devices." Some days afterward, Taliban commanders were recorded talking about the religious permissibility of employing such "devices." The surveillance instigated a high-stakes U.S. search for the extremists that concluded when an unmanned aircraft fired a missile at the Taliban commander believed to be in possession of the "devices."
"The fact that we haven't had a radiological device go off in the world is great but I don't take that as a problem solved -- there's a lot of risk out there," D'Agostino said.
Officials at his agency routinely analyze the information collected from each deployed detector. "The simplistic view is that we install the equipment and then we're done," the NNSA head said.
Amid significant political pressure to reduce government spending, the National Nuclear Security Administration could see its budget for international radiation detection significantly pared back in the years ahead (see GSN, June 16). House Republicans are backing a fiscal 2012 spending bill that would reduce the program's financing to $188 million, down from $272 million. Republican lawmakers have also called on the agency to supply data on the efficacy of the sensors.
Partnership for Global Security President Kenneth Luongo said the suggested spending reductions on global radiation monitoring were foolhardy.
"If you're worried about terrorists, this is the wrong program to cut," Luongo said. "If we have a dirty bomb explosion, there's absolutely no question it will cost $1 billion to clean it up, just in terms of commerce and the environment" (John Shiffman, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 4).
Nov. 19, 2012
This is the first in a series of four non-papers from the Global Dialogue on Nuclear Security Priorities, where leading government officials, international experts and nuclear security practitioners are engaging in a collaborative process to build consensus about the need for a strengthened global nuclear security system, how it would look and what actions would be needed at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit and beyond.
Nov. 19, 2012
This is the second in a series of four non-papers from the Global Dialogue on Nuclear Security Priorities, where leading government officials, international experts and nuclear security practitioners are engaging in a collaborative process to build consensus about the need for a strengthened global nuclear security system, how it would look and what actions would be needed at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit and beyond.