Don’t Fear the Dirty Bomb


At the recent Democratic presidential debate, the candidates were asked to identify the biggest threat the U.S. national security. Hillary Clinton, the candidate on stage with the most federal government experience, stated that she most worried over “nuclear material that can fall into the wrong hands.” She continued, “I know the terrorists are constantly seeking it, and that’s why we have to stay vigilant, but also united around the world to prevent that.” Clinton’s answer came on the heels of an Associated Press report about a criminal organization in Moldova that tried to sell nuclear material to an Islamic State group. Predictably, the story received a lot of media attention.

The general public is afraid of radiation. It’s an irrational fear, driven by the imagination of what high levels of uncontrolled radiation might do to our bodies or to our children, and spurred by high-profile accidents in the nuclear energy business. However, no one died from radiation poisoning or acute diseases as a result of the radioactive releases at Three Mile Island or Fukushima. Even at Chernobyl, less than 30 people died within a few months from radiation sickness. Another 130 suffered high doses of radiation poisoning, most of whom recovered over a number of years. Cancer rates for those near nuclear accidents are in line with those of the general population. But we’re terrified of invisible radiation waves, despite being bombarded every day from a variety of natural and man-made sources of radiation.

The panic over low-risk radiation exposure is bad enough. Nuclear terrorism raises the specter of fear several notches, with the idea that some terrorist group might obtain fissile material from somewhere in the world and bring it to a United States city — someday. We don’t have any specifics as to who is pursuing the material, where loose piles of material exist, or which cities are vulnerable, but other than that, it could happen, right? This is not a partisan issue — both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have warned of nuclear terrorism, the latter saying in 2010 that “The single biggest threat to U.S. security … would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon.” I disagree, considering there is more than one nation that could launch some seriously large-yield nuclear weapons at the United States today, and that the aspects of probability and consequence has to be included in any risk assessment. But I digress.

What I want to focus on is the deliberate manipulation of this public fear of radiation by people who know better, but do so to advance their organizations’ agendas. These people do not differentiate between radioactive and fissile material. They want to put warnings about “dirty bombs” — otherwise known as radiological dispersal devices — and nuclear weapons in the same op-ed, giving readers the impression that immediate steps are necessary today to stop numerous terrorist groups from exploding a nuclear bomb in New York City or Los Angeles like something out of 24.

Former Sen. Sam Nunn and Andrew Bieniawski are leaders within the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a non-profit organization that wants to reduce the risk of use or proliferation of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. Just two months ago, they warned in a Washington Post op-ed that the United States was vulnerable to a “disaster posed by dangerous radiological materials,” that these materials could wreak havoc and cause billions of dollars of damage unless the U.S. government took immediate steps to secure dangerous radioactive material or replace commercially used isotopes with alternative technologies. “It is nothing short of a miracle that we have not yet seen a dirty bomb terrorist attack,” they say. And yet it isn’t. Yes, radioactive cesium, cobalt, iridium, americium, thorium, barium, tritium, and many other isotopes are widely used in commercial practices and could be appropriated by a determined thief who wasn’t too worried about getting severe radiation poisoning. Yes, there are hundreds of cases of lost or stolen radioactive material every year, though overwhelmingly not highly enriched uranium or plutonium. And yet there has never been a detonated dirty bomb in history. Ever.

Joe Cirincione is a little blunter than Nunn or Bieniawski, saying that it’s “just a matter of time before ISIS — or some other terrorist group — gets some radioactive material.” These terrorists will “go nuclear, hoping to deter our attacks,” and “short of a nuclear explosive bomb, a dirty bomb may serve the same function.” But this logic does not hold together. The U.S. government has been fighting Islamist terrorist groups for decades, and — if one is to be optimistic — we’ve been pretty good in decimating al Qaeda, probably the most determined terrorist group to seek unconventional weapons. So all of a sudden, now terrorists are going to go nuclear in an effort to push the United States back? Iraq had decades to develop a nuclear program — dedicated resources, personnel, infrastructure — and never built a bomb, but somehow we’re supposed to be afraid that the self-proclaimed Islamic State is going to go nuclear, simply because it has a territory to defend and we’re supporting the Iraqi government in efforts to retake that land? Cirincione knows there is a difference between nuclear weapons and dirty bombs, and he readily admits that a dirty bomb will not kill many (if any) people. But he warns that “a few grams” of cesium or americium in a dirty bomb could “contaminate tens of square blocks, making them uninhabitable for weeks.”

That’s ridiculous. Let’s get past the impossible physics in which a heavy metal powder in the form of a few grams gets dispersed miles from the point of a ground explosion. We have atmospheric dispersion models and guidance to figure these things out. What Cirincione means (but doesn’t say) is that public officials, panicking because of the perception of radioactive dispersal in their city, will order the evacuation of people from the contaminated area to include a healthy buffer area further out, not because of the actual public health risk of a few millicuries of radiation exposure every day, but because they don’t want to be fired as a result of not being reactive enough. There was no rational basis for the U.S. government to order all Americans living within 50 miles of Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant to evacuate, other than fear. All that order did was spur the public’s panic and make Japan’s job of dealing with its millions of citizens in the same area more difficult. For a serious examination of the threat of nuclear terrorism, I recommend reading Michael Levi or Brian Jenkins, both of whom do a much better job on this serious issue.

So why does Andrew Bienawski tell the news media that “the threat is real” despite the utter lack of any past terrorist use of dirty bombs and despite the fact that no state has ever lost control of a nuclear weapon to a sub-state group. Why do arms control experts want to tell us about terrorist capabilities and intentions regarding nuclear and radiological material? To be clear, there are some media sources who find experts to offer different conclusions. VICE reached out to a Chatham House professor and a Stratfor analyst who pointed out that the groups such as the Islamic State already had access to commercial radioactive sources, rather than needing to go to criminal organizations. Richard Brown of King’s College London points out the high cost of obtaining radioactive material and assesses that the return on investment for terrorist groups would be poor.

The reason that Cirincione and his fellow arms control analysts want to beat the drum about the risk of nuclear terrorism is that it feeds the public fear of nuclear weapons. We have lived with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons for decades, and despite dramatic drops in the number of operational nuclear weapons since 1991, the disarmament community would like to see the number go to zero. As long as nuclear weapons exist in government arsenals, they reason, there’s the possibility that a terrorist organization could get one. Similarly, environmental groups who oppose the building of nuclear reactors will exaggerate the effects of radiation. Some science reporters will exaggerate the nuclear threat just because it sells articles. Scaring the public about nuclear terrorism — even if it’s just in the form of a dirty bomb — benefits their agendas.

I am delighted to see that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is working overseas with other nations’ law enforcement agencies to interdict smuggling of radioactive material. I am convinced that our Intelligence Community has an appropriate level of insight into this situation. I am supportive of the Department of Energy’s efforts to secure and lock down fissile material across the globe. But as long as we have public officials proclaiming that they cannot sleep at night because of the threat of nuclear terrorism, we cannot have a serious and reasoned approach to this issue. The fact remains that the overwhelming threat from terrorist groups will stem from their use of high-yield explosives, automatic rifles, and kidnappings that lead to executions, despite countless analysts who insist that terrorists are on the verge of having doomsday devices, nuclear or otherwise.

I don’t trust an arms control expert to tell me how terrorists are going to employ unconventional weapons. And I don’t trust a terrorist expert to tell me how a few grams of cesium in a car bomb will ”close down New York for months,” as Bob Baer recently suggested on CNN with Wolf Blitzer. Our policymakers need to tone down the rhetoric about the threat of terrorists using radiological and nuclear material, because the threat isn’t as probable as some make it out to be, and we really do have a good amount of government resources against this challenge. Let’s talk about this issue in the larger context of terrorist intentions and capabilities, rather than through this gut reaction to the primal fear of radiation. When we do, I suspect that our policymaking will be a lot more rational and in balance with the actual threats against the United States.


Al Mauroni is the Director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies. The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Air University, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.