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Should We Fear That Russian Nuclear Materials Are Being Smuggled To Terrorists?

Should We Fear That Russian Nuclear Materials Are Being Smuggled To Terrorists?


Using old-fashioned undercover tactics, radiation detectors and clothing threaded with recording devices, American FBI agents and a team of investigators from the country of Moldova, have been thwarting gang members suspected to have Russian ties from selling radioactive materials to undercover agents that the smugglers thought were from ISIS.

Four such sting operations have occurred in Moldova since 2010, according to the Associated Press, with the smugglers trying to sell various isotopes of uranium and cesium for millions of dollars.

The fear is that the smuggled materials could be used in a so-called dirty bomb, a class of weapons known as radiation dispersal devices, or RDDs. News agencies keep incorrectly referring to the materials involved in the latest sting, powdered cesium-137, as nuclear bomb materials.

They are not. They are radioactive materials that cannot be used to make a nuclear weapon, but instead are used for industrial processes and at medical facilities.

And the materials seized in this latest round were fake anyway – they were mostly the less harmful Cs-135, not the hot Cs-137. Big difference!

However, smuggling small amounts of enriched U-235 was attempted in 2011 and 2014, not enough to make a weapon, but certainly worrisome.

It was no coincidence that the operations occurred in Moldova, a country between Romania and the Ukraine that is considered the world’s flea market for illegal arms dealing, and the only place where we’ve seen dirty bombs for sale outright in the past. Unfortunately, Moldova has a history of not prosecuting nuclear smugglers very well. As in the past, the leaders of this ring got away and the others will not face much jail time.

The Associated Press broke the story this week in an effort to spotlight just how large the nuclear black market has become, with cooperation from Moldovan authorities who appear to want to show just how hard they are trying to stop it.

But it’s really about Russia — the world’s largest source of radiological and nuclear materials. The poor economic conditions and corrupt authorities create a strong incentive for black market sales of all types. Russia’s recent falling-out with the West has made it more difficult to track and intercept such attempts, and the Russians don’t seem to care.

Which may not be smart on their part, since the only two attempted dirty bomb attacks in history were by Chechens against Russia about ten years ago. One failed and the other was foiled.

What’s also strange is that Cs-137 chloride powder, the most effective dirty bomb material of all, is easy to get and very cheap, about $3 per Curie. All you need is a terrorist-sympathizing manager at an irradiation facility in some non-western country to order it, all legally. It doesn’t cost millions. Obviously, the Russians are counting on the scientific ignorance of most terrorists to make a killing financially.

So what is a dirty bomb?

Dirty bombs, or RDDs, use conventional methods, such as a car bomb or even a crop-duster, to disperse radioactive materials in a heavily populated area. The point is to cause great economic and social disruption disproportionate to the actual radiological effects and well beyond the physical destruction from the conventional bomb components.

Our irrational fear of radiation makes a dirty bomb the ultimate weapon of terror. But a psychological weapon, not a nuclear weapon. The public should not be any more afraid of a dirty bomb than an ordinary car bomb.

A key aspect of dirty bombs is that they are self-limiting – the greater the dispersal, the lower the radioactive doses. As an example, afist-sized amount of powdered 137CsCl (about 2,200 Curie), available in medium-size irradiation units and probably available to Russian smugglers from old reprocessed Russian weapons fuel, is lethal after about 1 hour of exposure at 1 meter (dose ~ 1,000 rem/hr or 10 Sv/hr).

However, this amount of radiation is not dangerous if spread out by a regular car bomb over 10 by 10 city blocks (dose < 1 rem/yr or 10 mSv/yr) because the surface area in 10 by 10 city blocks is over 1 billion square feet (95 million square meters).

The United States has performed detailed studies of dirty bombs for years, and came to the conclusion that such an attack would be ineffective and that they don’t pose a substantial danger beyond the conventional blast and the psychological effect. Other countries came to the same conclusion.

Only those people close enough to be hurt or killed by the car bomb itself, or other explosive device, would get a significant radiation dose. Few people, if any, would die from the radiation of a dirty bomb, even a big one, although hundreds could die from the conventional blast.

But it would scare everyone. The resulting shutdown of the local economy, evacuation, disruption of services and costly clean-up is the point of a dirty bomb, not death and destruction. If one were detonated in lower Manhattan, every day that the area would be closed would cost our economy $60 million. Clean-up could take years if not handled correctly.

It’s this hundred billion dollar price tag that terrorists want from this weapon. Fortunately, we know how to respond to this kind of attack, and a rapid effective response will discourage future attacks and keep the price tag down.

But with the amount of radioactivity able to be smuggled to terrorists, there would be no real health threat from the radioactive component.

Fortunately, few sources exist that are bigger than this amount, and they are so hot that it is extremely difficult to shield sufficiently to transport without setting off the now-abundant detectors all over the developed world, or killing the smugglers themselves. Since large sources are also highly lethal to handle, the logistics for a terrorist group become extremely difficult.

But not impossible.


This article was written by James Conca from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.