Preventing a Nuclear 'Dirty Bomb' Attack
In 1985, medical equipment containing cesium-137 was abandoned in a radiotherapy center in Goiânia, Brazil. Two years later, scrap-metal salvagers illegally entered the partly-demolished facility and took the equipment. Unaware of the threat posed by the radioactive source, the salvagers subsequently began dismantling the equipment and brought it to a dealer, where the capsule containing the cesium-137 was ruptured. Not realizing what the blue glowing material was, the dealer gave some to his friends and family as a gift. It was not long before the cesium-137 spread, and the people of Goiânia began suffering from acute radiation poisoning. The surrounding area had to be extensively and thoroughly decontaminated – 249 people and 85 houses were contaminated from radiation exposure.
It is not too hard to imagine what could happen if someone with malicious intent, or a terrorist group such as Daesh, got hold of the abandoned cesium-137 source in Goiânia. This incident is a prime example of the dilemma posed by “orphan sources,” or radiological sources that have been abandoned or improperly disposed of. Even sources currently in use can present a risk if they are not properly secured. The best way to defend against radiological weapons is to secure and monitor potential sources of radiological materials, shifting from reactive seizures to proactive oversight. This includes everything from nuclear waste to radiotherapy equipment such as those abandoned in Goiânia.
In an open letter to U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, former UK Defense Secretary Des Browne, former German Ambassador to the United Nations Wolfgang Ischinger, former Russian Foreign Minister Igor S. Ivanov, and former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn called on the two presidents to work together to prevent Daesh from acquiring radioactive materials. The signatories specifically cited poorly secured sources in hospitals and universities. Such a proactive approach will not only make border screening, the approach traditionally relied upon to stanch the flow of illegal nuclear material, easier, but will ensure that radioactive sources can be tracked and cared for properly. However, the only actions that have been implemented so far are reactive.
The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO) and the Container Security Initiative (CSI), created in the wake of the September 11 attacks, are working to secure the United States’ ports from potential attacks and prevent radiological materials from illicitly entering the United States. While these initiatives are vital to prevent the use of a radiological device on U.S. soil, this reactive approach still allows non-state actors to acquire the materials to build – and potentially use – a functioning radiological weapon abroad. It is more responsible to block non-state actors from ever getting the opportunity to construct a radiological device in the first place. Furthermore, agencies such as the DNDO and CSI are not infallible, and securing the United States’ ports of entry is an arduous and complex task.
So why has a more proactive approach not been implemented? The most significant obstacle is a lack of political will, particularly in less-developed states, due to corruption, lack of resources/training, or other concerns monopolizing government attention. Unfortunately, these states also have a higher risk of radiological sources becoming orphaned, as seen in Goiânia, Istanbul, and Samut Prakan. Governments must find the political will to devote the time and energy necessary to secure and track radiological sources. Luckily, there are organizations willing to help in this endeavor.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) advocates for IAEA leadership in this regard, promoting its security Code of Conduct as the best way forward. The IAEA, though, does not have the capacity to help train everyone in the best practices of radiological source security. Fortunately, there are many nonprofits that are willing to support these efforts. The James Martin 'at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies has been assisting the Moldovan government in tracking radiological sources. This “on-the-job” training lays the groundwork for the kind of lasting political will necessary to have effective security. The Center for International Trade and Security (CITS) at the University of Georgia conducts a bi-annual Security & Strategic Trade Management Academy with the goal of educating government officials from around the world on different security options and the importance of good security culture.
Security culture is the idea that staff dealing with radiological sources (or other hazardous materials) must always be on alert for suspicious activity and follow all security procedures to the letter. Creating good security culture will foster political will that keeps a state’s security measures effective over time. Adopting, implementing, and committing to the Code of Conduct, with help from nonprofits such as CNS and CITS, is the quickest way to shore up security of radiological sources.
Terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Daesh have long been interested in developing weapons of mass destruction, particularly radiological weapons. While steps have been made to reactively defend against radiological smuggling, not enough has been done to proactively ensure the security of radiological sources. Without a proper understanding of the dangers posed by unsecured orphan sources and the will to proactively secure them, the threat of an incident much worse than Goiânia remains a frightening possibility.
John Ashley is the Nuclear Security Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). John received a Master of International Policy from the University of Georgia, where he concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation and international security.