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The reality of dirty nukes

Posted By -NO AUTHOR- On 05/27/2003 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Following all of the news and commentaries these days about “dirty bombs” and government efforts to interdict smuggling of nuclear materials, one would begin to think that this is the actual situation of our risks from these devices.

But you would be absolutely, dead wrong.

Having more than a bit of practical expertise in the various aspects of these matters, I will try to enlighten you. To do this one must begin to understand the situation of a guerrilla /terrorist.

First off, the idea of the simplest explanation usually being the correct one is very much true for the operative world of a terrorist. Take for instance the case of the “Beltway Sniper.” That was actually just two guys with a rifle, tooling around in a large nondescript car with a hole cut in the trunk, hidden behind the license plate and sleeping in highway rest areas between taking their random potshots. Although there were a couple of high-tech gadgets found, the basics were pretty crude and this played well against what had become a fixation on complexity by the local law enforcement.

The Sept. 11 terrorists did not smuggle in the airliners, they used what was locally available.

Complexity within a plan is not an advantage to a terrorist. Just as in mechanical devices, the fewer the parts – the greater the reliability. Simplicity has the unassailable merit of reducing the number of variables that can go wrong. A covert operation such as the detonation of a “dirty bomb” must be kept simple if it is to succeed, for a failure is far too costly in political and psychological terms.

The smuggling of enough long-lived, radioisotope to present a problem is an unnecessary complexity that will probably be eliminated by any group of planners with IQs better than double-digits.

The problems are, for instance, that: bringing in enough radioisotope at one time has the tagalong disadvantage of a large, unique energy signature unless shielded with dense (read: very heavy) materials for gamma and x-ray emitters and goodly quantities of either water, oil or plastics (also heavy and bulky) to shield neutron emitters.

To reduce these problems, one might elect to do it in many smaller shipments to reduce the need for shielding against the detectors already in place and against those more sophisticated devices used if the attempt is partially compromised and an area search is on. But again, each attempt carries new risk whether you use a new route for each or keep using the same methodology.

To keep things simpler, the obvious alternative then is to find a local source of enough of a suitable radioisotope close to your intended target. This eliminates plutonium as a possibility as you would either need to penetrate a weapons facility either by intensive and sophisticated guile or by major force – and such facilities are not co-located in cities. This is not within the grasp of our putative garden-variety terrorist cell because if they had the muscle to successfully invade a nuclear facility and transport it the long distances to a major city they would not have gone after raw radioisotopes anyway. Why trouble yourself breaking into a well-guarded facility to steal a beat-up Ford, if a Rolls Royce is parked right next to it?

So what our terrorists are left with is a fairly short list of appropriate and locally available radioisotopes in such quantities as to be useful. Right now, most every reader is thinking just “industrial” at this point.

Oops, wrong again …

Think “medical.” That’s right, medical facilities … every major metropolitan area has at least one and usually several major facilities that have targetable sources. If you think about it for a few moments, you will realize that physical security for hospitals is nearly nonexistent.

Hospitals that treat cancer all have “teletheraphy” machines, these are medical devices used by oncologists to irradiate (and kill) some types of tumors. What these machines all have at their core is a large container of an isotope with a half-life of better than 5 years. While it is not the sexy half-life of a little more than 24,000 years that plutonium offers, it is more than sufficient to put a serious crimp in the economic life of any city. That is the goal of terrorists, is it not?

How do I know all this? I completed my preceptorship as a Radiation Safety Officer in 1985 for the most complex type of facility license offered by the NRC.

Because I am familiar with the regulatory worlds of the NRC and the EPA, I can tell you with a certainty that most of the disruption will come not from the dangers of the explosion and dispersal of the radioisotope, but from the regulatory over-response and rivalry that cannot help but follow like flies on fresh droppings.

The drill recently held in Seattle by Homeland Security was wholly inadequate on its face to properly plan for such an event as we are discussing here. The Seattle exercise was really an announced walk-through designed to test the lack of coordination and interface between the various local, state and federal agencies that would normally respond. The problem with using their results as a nationwide template for response is that each city and state has a unique synergy of regulations, interrelationships and capabilities as what each agency and facility can (or actually will) bring to the table when the chips are down.

Homeland security and our erstwhile media gurus are overdue for a reality check … as our terrorist foes may think globally, but they act locally.


Tom Marzullo is a former Special Forces soldier and a veteran of submarine special operations. He resides in Colorado.


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