Remarks for conference panel: New Threats, Hyper-terrorism and Possible Mitigation of Exposures
Thank you very much for the invitation to be with you for this important conference. I’m grateful for the opportunity to discuss today’s very troubling threat landscape, and pleased to share this panel with some partners in our efforts at NTI to mitigate global threats.
I’d like to focus today on the work we are engaged in to address the growing risk of radiological terrorism – specifically, to prevent the theft of material that could be used to build a radiological “dirty bomb.”
We are working with partners in government and the private sector, in the United States and around the world—sharing information, expertise and ideas, and encouraging and assisting those who are taking important and effective steps to reduce risks.
Before I talk about the threat and the work we have underway, let me share a little bit about my organization, the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
For those of you who may be unfamiliar with NTI, we are a small, Washington-based non-partisan, non-profit organization with a big mission: to reduce the growing risks posed by weapons of mass destruction and disruption – and that means nuclear, biological, radiological, chemical, and cyber. As our name suggests, much of our work is around nuclear risks – but we have a robust radiological program, and that is what I will focus on today as it has direct implications for the insurance and reinsurance industries and there are effective and available ways to mitigate the threat.
As a general matter, when it comes to the risks posed by weapons of mass destruction and disruption, much of the responsibility for threat reduction rests with governments – but it’s also clear that governments cannot do this work alone. We also need the commitment and involvement of business leaders, non-profit organizations, and the public – to bring pressure, know-how and fresh thinking to the table.
With respect to the radiological threat, I’d like to offer a broad overview and some context for why we at NTI have made radiological security a priority.
This is a different – and in many ways more urgent – threat than nuclear terrorism. Although it is obviously imperative that governments work to protect the materials that could be used by terrorists to build a nuclear bomb, a variety of factors would make it challenging for an extremist organization to acquire or build – and then transport and detonate – a nuclear weapon.
But a terrorist group could quite easily steal or buy the material for a so-called “dirty bomb” – that is, a smaller bomb that would not kill many people but would spew radiation, potentially costing billions of dollars of damage due to the costs associated with evacuation, relocation, demolition and cleanup.
And unlike the materials needed for nuclear weapons, which are held by a relatively small number of countries, the materials needed to build dirty bombs are located at thousands of hospitals, medical centers, research labs, and businesses in more than 150 countries – and many of them are poorly secured.
Unfortunately, despite security upgrades in recent years, many radioactive sources – often located in settings that are open to the public – are easy to remove from the equipment that houses them. And it doesn’t take a lot of technical know-how or money to then use the materials to build a bomb.
The vulnerability of these radioactive sources has caused concern for years – particularly one radioactive isotope, cesium-137, which is used in blood irradiators in hospitals and other open and vulnerable “soft target” settings.
It’s important to know that all it takes is just one source from one blood irradiator in one hospital to provide enough cesium for a dirty bomb that would do tremendous damage in any major city.
Risk on the rise
Unfortunately, authorities today believe the risk is growing. Radical terrorist organizations have said they are looking to acquire and use radioactive material in a dirty bomb, and evidence is mounting around the world that they are trying.
- In 2016, Belgian investigators discovered terrorists monitoring an employee at a highly enriched uranium reactor that also produces medical isotopes like the ones we’re talking about today for a large part of Europe.
- In 2011, the manifesto of a terrorist in Norway who killed 77 people with conventional weapons included page-after-page of details about how to procure radiological sources and build and detonate radiological bombs. The manifesto noted that radiological materials were widely available on the black market and easy to steal.
- In 2003, coalition forces in Afghanistan recovered plans for a dirty bomb, and a year earlier, an American who had attended an Qaeda training camp in Pakistan was arrested for plotting to build a radiological weapon.
These are just a few examples. There are many more – each as chilling as the next.
Now, let’s talk about why terrorists would want to set off dirty bombs – besides the fact that it would be relatively easy to do.
Unlike a nuclear weapon, a dirty bomb would not cause catastrophic levels of death and injury. But depending on its chemistry, form and location, here’s what it would do:
- It would terrify citizens in the area where it was detonated and, indeed, around the world.
- It would exacerbate public mistrust in governments’ ability to protect against devastating attacks.
- It would generate tremendous media attention for the terrorist organization behind it, helping with recruiting and financial support.
- And it likely would have massive economic repercussions – some estimates say in the tens of billions of dollars – as thousands of people and businesses were relocated and buildings were demolished and the debris removed. To be clear: large sections of a city could easily be rendered uninhabitable for years.
This is why dirty bombs often are referred to as “weapons of mass disruption.”
The good news
Now, the good news – and there is some good news here. As many of you know, awareness of the risk is building and there is work underway to protect the legitimate and continued use of many of these materials with heightened security. Even better news is that there are now ways to eliminate the risk entirely when it comes to the widely used radiological source that often is most vulnerable and most dangerous: cesium-137.
In recent years, thanks to significant technological advances, alternatives have been developed to replace cesium in hospital blood irradiators. These alternative technologies are not only safe – they are effective and produce equivalent medical outcomes to the equipment that relies on cesium.
In the U.S., we have worked directly with hospitals in Atlanta and New York that have made the decision to get rid of their cesium sources and move to alternative technologies, reducing the risk to zero. We are also working closely with officials in California, which has more cesium sources than any other state, to eliminate their sources.
We have produced a brochure about the risks and solutions – and it explains why replacing cesium irradiators also is cost-effective and protects hospitals that don’t have insurance to cover terrorism losses from potentially massive liability.
Our brochure – and I would encourage you all to pick up a copy and read it – also tells the stories of how France, Japan and Norway are eliminating their cesium sources.
So it’s not just that it can be done, it has been done – and it is being done, as we speak.
Again, I am grateful that the insurance and reinsurance industries are engaged on this issue. It is incumbent on all of us – and to the benefit of all of us – to make a contribution to global risk reduction.
Thank you again for your invitation to be here today, and I look forward to our discussion.
NTI Executive Vice President Deborah Rosenblum discussed radiological risks at a meeting in Paris of the International Forum of Terrorism Risk (Re)insurance Pools.