One of the headlines to emerge from the recently concluded Nuclear Security Summit concerned dirty, not nuclear, bomb material:
Twenty-three nations participating in the Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands this week said they intend to comply with international guidelines regarding the security of so-called “dirty bomb” material.
The parties to the multilateral statement — including the United States and countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East — pledged to secure all their most dangerous “Category I” radiological sources under guidelines set out by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency. Specifically, they vowed to follow the IAEA “Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources.”
Radiological sources are those that, if paired with conventional explosives, could form a “dirty bomb” that disperses radioactive contamination over an area, but which cannot produce a nuclear detonation akin to an atomic bomb.
Matt Bunn, already referenced once today, isn’t accepting all this apparent progress on face value:
Bunn, however, criticized the transportation gift basket, which does not require the participating countries to utilize any specific security measures. He told Global Security Newswire that the transport-security pledge “is as weak as dishwater,” and he took exception to its suggestion that “the security record of civilian transport of nuclear materials has been excellent” historically.
“Essentially what it means is just that the shipments have not been seized by terrorists so far,” Bunn said. “It used to be legal to send plutonium by regular mail, and the industry complained loudly when the [U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission] started requiring any armed guards at all.”
Yet what he or other critics of the agreement failed to mention is that it is entirely focused on what is referred to as “left of boom.” These are the prevention, occasionally encompassing preparedness, measures focused on preventing a dirty bomb attack in the first place.
Nuclear terrorism is a left of boom problem. The part of a nuclear attack terrorists cannot achieve themselves is making the required fissile material. While a large amount of nuclear weapons-usable fissile material exists (the vast majority in the U.S. and Russia), it is a finite amount that can conceivably be locked down or eliminated.
If a nuclear explosion goes off, you and everyone else in the world will know. If an attempted attack “fizzles,” it will still result in government action that will make the 9/11 reaction seem tame. Preparing to respond to a nuclear detonation is important, but once it goes off officials are basically relegated to cleaning up.
A dirty bomb is mostly a “right of boom” issue. It is incredibly helpful to reduce the access to the potentially worst dirty bomb ingredients, such as cesium, by eliminating or drastically reducing their use in medicine and industry, as well as increasing transportation security standards.
However, unlike a nuclear explosion, the bar to detonating a dirty bomb is extremely low. Simply add any radioactive material, which exists in countless forms for countless uses in countless fields, to an explosive device and voila!…Wolf Blitzer will be interviewing former administration officials about how this dirty bomb could have happened. Didn’t we agree to get rid of this stuff at the last nuclear security summit?!?
I jest. To a point. It is important to secure or eliminate the most dangerous radiological sources. However, unlike with nuclear terrorism, it will not be possible to accomplish this for ALL radioactive substances. And the the end product of any dirty bomb is panic and fear of lingering radiation that results in economic damage. Basically an own goal or touchback if officials and the media emphasize the presence of ANY radiation following an attack, regardless if it included cesium or another isotope considered dangerous (for which these new suggested regulations are attempting to increase the security) or something just barely radioactive that can be measured by local officials on their Geiger counters – if they aren’t simply registering the already existing background radiation.
So what to do? Concentrate on preparedness, response, and especially recovery.
- Don’t focus public messages on prevention, but instead on preparedness.
- Emphasize the low risk nature of the threat; point out the lack of radiation injuries resulting from Three Mile Island and Fukushima.
- Prepare succinct talking points for officials in case of a dirty bomb attack.
- Officials should become comfortable downplaying the fear of radiation. This should also be instilled in first responders.
- First responders should have clear, exercised plans for dealing with any radiation-related incident.
- Federal officials should transfer money from expensive efforts at prevention to developing new technologies for cleaning up.
The only people likely to die in any dirty bomb attack are those injured by the explosion. The worst damage is caused by a fear of radiation. The ability to decontaminate an urban area will deter potential dirty bombers in the future.
As long as the experts, currently in and out of government, do not go on cable news to expound on the over-hyped danger of dirty bombs.