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October 06, 2006

Nuclear Smuggling and Dirty Bombs

In The Times a story on nuclear materials and dirty bombs. Hhhhm:

SEIZURES of smuggled radioactive material capable of making a terrorist “dirty bomb” have doubled in the past four years, according to official figures seen by The Times.

Smugglers have been caught trying to traffick dangerous radioactive material more than 300 times since 2002, statistics from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) show. Most of the incidents are understood to have occurred in Europe.

Looks to me that this is making something out of not very much. As the various experts quoted point out, no one even dreams that there will be high grade bomb material available to any networks of terrorists. The thought is that they'll get ahold of some radioactive material and mix it with an explosive. Again, as is correctly pointed out, the radioactivity won't have much of an effect at all. Except, and importantly, psychologically.

You might remember a year or two back some guys arrested for trying to scrape americum oxide off fire detectors to add to such a bomb. Only the fact that the general populace know so little about radioactivity made it even a credible threat. The entire world uses 20 kg a year of this stuff and it's an alpha emitter: the radiation itself is actually stopped by a bit of smoke in the air....that's how the detectors work, if there's smoke around then the tiny radiation counter ain't getting any and so goes off.

However, one point that shows quite how overblown this all is:

One of the most serious seizures since 9/11 was that of several kilograms of a radioactive substance known as yellow cake that was found in a consignment of scrap metal at the port of Rotterdam in December 2003.

A full description of what happened is on this old blog post of mine. Worth noting that I've had emails from the people involved pointing out that that is just about the only full and fair description of what actually went on. A further description of why this ' most serious seizure'  is here.

That 'yellowcake' found in Rotterdam was roughly the same quantity and material that can be found by rootling around in the back of a high school pottery shop. You can still easily buy ceramics made with it, a (I think) deep yellow glaze from the 20s or 30s.

Now, having played down all of this over international trafficking of materials for dirty bombs I guess I should scare the pants off you. I'll not identify the material, but there is one that's all over the place, easily available, in hospitals and food processing plants. Would create a very nasty little dirty bomb. Fortunately, the process of taking out of the machine would likely kill you, so it's actually too toxic to be used effectively in a bomb. Concentrating on international trade in this stuff is looking at where the danger isn't.

October 6, 2006 in Nuclear | Permalink

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Tracked on Oct 6, 2006 1:42:07 PM

Comments

This was an important post. I'd wondered about that and there'd be a lot of others too. Do you rate it 'no threat'?

Tim adds: No, not no threat. The highly enriched bomb material is being well taken care of. Those small research reactors around the world that use HEU are all being converted. I would rate, given what is already being done, a terrorist nuclear bomb as being vanishingly unlikely. When Maffiya are arrested trying to trade such stuff they have the occasional gramme.

Dirty bombs, yes a threat, but not from uranium or americum and so on. Rather from the materials I'd rather not identify which are already all over the place. International trade in such things is uneccessary.

Posted by: james higham | Oct 6, 2006 10:38:13 AM

This stuff?

http://arts.bev.net/roperldavid/GRI.htm

K.

Tim adds: Partly, yes. There's another one too.

Posted by: Kay Tie | Oct 6, 2006 12:34:23 PM

Realistically, terrorists are only ever likely to deploy a nuclear bomb or a proper "dirty" bomb if a state builds the weapon and uses them as the delivery mechanism. It seems unlikely that any state would ever risk that, knowing:

(a) The kind of retaliation they would face if the weapon was traced back to them

(b) The risk of the terrorists using the bomb against an unauthorised target

(c) The risk of losing the bomb in transit - detection by police/customs/intelligence agencies, or theft (e.g. by a faction within the terrorist group, or by criminals involved in smuggling items for the terrorist group)

For Iran, there's also a political problem. The regime wants to be the leader of the global jihad. But if they gave terrorists a nuke, they wouldn't be able to claim credit for the attack without being nuked in return. Therefore the terrorist group would suddenly become the recognised leaders of the Islamist cause, and Iran would lose control over them.

However, a state could threaten to give nuclear weapons to terrorists as a way of deterring/intimidating its enemies.

It might also give terrorists the bombs but not the means to activate them, to create a survivable second-strike capability - a kind of poor man's SLBM. The activation codes/devices would be held by agents posted outside the country, who would pass them to the terrorists in the event of the homeland being destroyed.

The biggest risk is probably of insurrection/civil war in a nuclear state - e.g. Pakistan - resulting in some of its weapons falling into the hands of a faction that didn't care about the consequences of using them.

But for the moment, the more time and money that terrorists waste on unworkable plots the better.

Posted by: Andrew Zalotocky | Oct 6, 2006 12:52:51 PM