Why I Fear the Dirty Bomb and You Should Too

November 10, 2015

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“It is hard to imagine a more terrifying prospect than an extremist group like ISIS armed with nuclear or radiological weapons.” I wrote that statement just a few weeks ago in a blog post for The Huffington Post after an Associated Press investigation revealed that nuclear materials smugglers have been trying to sell highly radioactive compounds to the Islamic State for use in a radiological weapon or “dirty bomb.” It seems like a fairly obvious assessment to me.

But Al Mauroni, the director of the U.S. Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies, disagrees. In a recent piece on War on the Rocks he attacks me for this comment. In doing so, Mauroni also dismisses similar warnings from Sen. Sam Nunn, President Barack Obama, scores of intelligence officials and my fellow nonproliferation experts who all say that the threat of a dirty bomb attack on American soil is real. He writes:

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. … Scaring the public about nuclear terrorism — even if it’s just in the form of a dirty bomb — benefits their agendas.

Mauroni claims that my warnings are a part of “the deliberate manipulation of this public fear of radiation by people who know better, but do so to advance their organizations’ agendas.”

I have dedicated most of my professional life to reducing and eliminating the nuclear threats to our country and our planet. They are horrifying enough without any exaggeration. The Islamic State has repeatedly demonstrated its barbarity, including its willingness to use chemical weapons against civilian targets. There should be no question that if given the means and opportunity, they would do the same with nuclear or radiological weapons. That is nothing to scoff at. And the threat is only growing worse.

For those who need a refresher, according to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “a ‘dirty bomb’ is one type of a radiological dispersal device (RDD) that combines conventional explosives, such as dynamite, with radioactive material.” A dirty bomb would not produce a nuclear explosion like those at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Few, if any, people would die in a dirty bomb attack. Only those close to the conventional explosion would be immediately harmed. But the radioactive material laced within the bomb would be spread dozens of blocks or even miles from the explosion, depending on the size of the bomb and the radiological material used.

Indeed as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says, “a dirty bomb is not a ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’ but a ‘Weapon of Mass Disruption,’ where contamination and anxiety are the terrorists’ major objectives.” This is a true terrorist weapon that would spread throughout a city a potent fear that exposure would cause cancer, birth defects or heavy metal poisoning over the years. Think of it as if somebody sprayed asbestos in your apartment building. No one would die and you could go in and out, but nobody would for fear of exposing themselves to cancer-causing agents.

Mauroni calls this fear “irrational,” and says that my claim of radioactive contamination causing an affected city center to shut down is “ridiculous.” He elaborates, saying that

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.

Downtown Washington is a small piece of real estate. In fact, all three branches of the federal government are only about two miles apart from one another. Does Mauroni really think that if someone were to set off a dirty bomb somewhere on Pennsylvania Avenue, the federal government would continue to function?

If I found out that a dirty bomb had exploded on the National Mall, and that my office was a half-mile away and the wind was blowing away from me, would I stay at work? No way. And neither, I would bet, would Mauroni — even knowing a great deal about the limitations of such a device. Certainly no one else in the city would stay in place, calmly continuing to work. The city would be in a mass panic. Irrational? Maybe. But very real terror would grip the city.

This would not impact just the “uninformed” public, and it would not be over in just one day. If even a small dirty bomb attack dosed the U.S. Capitol, Supreme Court, or House or Senate office buildings with cesium (which bonds with cement by the way), would any of the thousands of legislative or judicial staffers who keep the government running really come back to work? I remember when the Rayburn House Office Building was wrapped in plastic and workers in HAZMAT “moon suits” worked for days after an anthrax scare in 2001.

This is not just my speculation. A 2007 study by the Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) at the University of Southern California analyzed the impact of a dirty bomb attack on the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach. While human casualties would likely be low, the study concluded:

One of the major concerns about the dirty bomb threat to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is the potential for an extended shutdown of the region’s operations. While it is very hard to predict how long the ports would be inoperable … it is understood that large areas of the ports would be subjected to short-, medium-, or even long-term closures because of: concerns of dock workers about returning to work, concerns of shippers about delivering goods to the harbors, [and] extensive procedures related to decontamination activities.

The continued shutdown of the Port of Los Angeles would be economically devastating. The report goes on:

Several shut-down scenarios were analyzed, ranging from short (15 days) to medium (120 days) to long (one year). … The 15-day shutdown has a small impact (about $300 million) because most ships would simply wait out the port closures and businesses would be supplied through other ports. The 120-day and one-year shutdowns, in contrast, have significant impacts ($63 and $252 billion, respectively) because they account for the economic impacts of a delay of delivering goods as well as all ripple effects throughout the nation’s economy that such long-term delays involve. This includes costs ranging from the loss of local dock worker jobs to the reduced income and possible forced closure of nationwide businesses not receiving necessary parts or retail products.

It actually could be worse. Imagine what would happen to the world economy if a dirty bomb went off on Wall Street. A 2006 study published by the Naval Postgraduate School does. In it, former Deputy Chief of the Fire Department of New York John Sudnik writes that:

Any large scale attack could reasonably be expected to involve the Financial District in lower Manhattan. With hundreds of financial firms encompassing all aspects of the industry, it is arguably the most valuable “node of the American economy” worth protecting. On any given business day, a few hundred thousand employees inhabit a relatively small cavernous, high-rise building area of less than one square mile. This area has previously been the recipient of two relatively catastrophic attacks; and it remains an extremely susceptible target for yet another, more cataclysmic, strike.

He goes on to estimate:

The after-effects of 9/11 have proven that an attack on this sector will reverberate through the entire U.S. economy. … [An] attack in which 40 city blocks in Lower Manhattan are contaminated beyond Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines would undoubtedly cripple the local and regional economies. … If such an event were to take place in the areas of Lower or Midtown Manhattan, utter devastation would be offered on the entire NYC metropolitan area. Hence, it is entirely appropriate to consider a radiological attack at any one of these locations a weapon of mass ‘destruction’ event … [and while it is] difficult to quantify the exact amount of economic damage likely to be incurred … losses resulting from an RDD attack in the area of the New York Stock Exchange could actually reach $1 trillion.

That is an unacceptable cost to pay. Mauroni says that “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.”

Simply because something terrible has not happened does not mean that it cannot or will not happen. This is the fallacy of using past performance to predict future behavior; every stockbroker warns you about doing this. A space shuttle had never blown up, before one did. A tsunami had never struck a nuclear power plant, until one did. A terrorist group had never flown planes into office towers, until one did.

Mauroni does get one thing about me right though. I do sometimes talk about nuclear weapons and radiological dispersal devices in the same piece. That is because, unfortunately, they are often more related than many of us would like to believe. The AP investigation revealed that in 2011, a nuclear smuggler “was recorded arranging the sale of bomb-grade uranium, U-235, and blueprints for a dirty bomb.” He was recorded on a wiretap saying that, “I really want an Islamic buyer because they will bomb the Americans.”

As I have written previously:

The risks of ISIS getting a nuclear bomb are small. But they are not zero. … It is impossible now for ISIS to build a nuclear bomb from scratch. Doing so would require large, industrial facilities to enrich uranium, billions of dollars and gigawatts of energy. But if they could get the highly-enriched uranium — about 100 pounds would do, about the size of a soccer ball — it is possible that they could assemble the equipment and small technical team to build the bomb.

The fact that smugglers could have potentially gotten their hands on any weapons grade uranium is a terrifying prospect. However, it is not the only way that they could get a nuclear weapon.

In my book Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late, I detail the disturbing number of attacks by Islamic militants on Pakistani military facilities associated with that country’s extensive nuclear weapons program. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg shares my concern, writing after one of the attacks in an article he called “Pakistan: Maybe Not the Best Country in Which to Store Nuclear Weapons,” that even though no nuclear material has gone missing in any of these attacks, “It is … only a matter of time before a more serious breach is made, with enormous consequences.”

Nuclear weapons are dangerous enough, even when just sitting in their silos. Don’t believe me? Eric Schlosser, author of Command and Control, cites an Air Force report on 87 accidents and incidents involving nuclear weapons just between 1950 and 1957. Jeffrey Lewis of the Monterey Institute points to a Department of Defense summary of 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980. These were not trivial incidents. On several occasions, we almost lost a state.

That is a pretty worrying prospect. But none of those incidents involved a well-funded and well-motivated terrorist organization actively trying to blow one up or steal one.

I find Mauroni’s analysis fundamentally flawed and dangerously blind to the threats nuclear weapons pose to us, not just by terrorists, but by their very existence. You have to be a real optimist to think that we can continue to keep 16,000 nuclear weapons in fallible human hands without something terrible happening sooner or later.

Mauroni says that he doesn’t “trust an arms control expert to tell [him] how terrorists are going to employ unconventional weapons.” Well, maybe he should start. There are simple, commonsense measures, as Sen. Nunn details, that we can take to reduce the odds that something like this could happen. But we cannot, and will not, protect a single American life by blindly disregarding these threats as “irrational.”


Joe Cirincione is the President of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation. He is the author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late, and Bomb Scare: the History and Future of Nuclear Weapons. He serves on the secretary of state’s International Security Advisory Board and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Geoff Wilson is a Research Associate at Ploughshares Fund.

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One thought on “Why I Fear the Dirty Bomb and You Should Too

  1. Ironically, Joe Cirincione responds to my article charging him with fearmongering with another article talking about fear and terror. He makes the point for me. But let me add a few facts. My main point is and continues to be that a radiological dispersal device (RDD) or “dirty bomb” as it is commonly known is 1) not a nuclear weapon, 2) not being sought by terrorist groups for whatever reason, and 3) yet still something to be concerned about. But we need to talk about the possible use of RDDs separate from nuclear weapons effects when we talk about the threat of terrorist attacks. This article doesn’t advance the discussion at all.
    I could point out that the NCTC’s annual reports on terrorism (when the IC used to do these annually) identified more than 10,000 deaths and 50,000 affected people each year for the past decade – an average of 10-11,000 attacks each year, and none of them from a nuclear or radiological (or biological) incident. When the law enforcement and intel community has to set priorities and allocate resources, they have to address where the threat exists, not where it might be in someone’s dark dream. And the current pattern is one of using firearms and high-yield explosives, not nuclear devices.
    So let’s talk about dirty bombs. Why then does this article swerve into discussions about IS using improvised chlorine weapons and the Amerithrax incident? Is the author not lumping all nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological weapons into one generic category? Is the fact that IS got some chlorine tanks and strapped them to a car-bomb, or threw a few mustard rounds at Kurdish soldiers (with no life-threatening casualties) really an indication that they are going nuclear? No, it does not. Why does the article talk about Fukushima – a natural disaster – and the 9/11 incident, as if these were indications that demonstrate terrorists will use RDDs?
    I’m all for securing radiological material and having the law enforcement and intel community on the lookout for terrorist groups seeking the capability to make an RDD. I’m confident that these terrorist groups have not done so, for practical reasons that radiological materials are hazardous to work with and there are so many conventional firearms available for their purposes. I recognize that the US government already spends billions of dollars every year to prevent nuclear/radiological terrorism, to include huge annual national response exercises. But we need to segregate the challenge of responding to RDDs (which again, we haven’t see used – ever) from that of responding to terrorist nuclear devices.
    I’m not surprised that this article encourages us all to panic in the event of an RDD goes off in Washington DC. I don’t accept that a “very real terror would grip the city” even as this article’s author acknowledges that this fear is “irrational.” Yes, the US government’s response to Amerithrax (and “white powder” hoaxes ad infinitum) was way out of proportion to the actual threat. Shouldn’t we be trying to educate the state and federal legislators about the need to develop rational, long-term, and sustainable response and recovery actions? Or do we just give in to the unthinking terrified response of the masses?
    Cirincione suggests that I am “dangerously blind to the threats nuclear weapons pose to us, not just by terrorists, but by their very existence.” This is a strawman argument – nothing that I said in my original article suggests that I disregard the amazingly destructive power of nuclear weapons. I will point out that his statement about “16,000 nuclear weapons in fallible human hands” is a tremendous overstatement (that he’s repeated on many occasion). More than half of those weapons are locked up in storage areas that are arguably the most secure facilities in the world. More than 90% of those weapons are in US or Russian hands, and I would argue are not in jeopardy of being stolen or lost to terrorist groups. But that doesn’t fit his narrative of universal disarmament.
    I believe that the disarmament community is getting more concerned because they sees this White House administration’s term of office ending without the “Global Zero” agenda being advanced. Following the president’s Prague speech in 2009, the disarmament community really thought they had a good shot at pushing the U.S. government toward a path of universal elimination of nuclear weapons. And for a short while, there was a lot of action along that path. We got the New START agreement and the 2010 NPR, and the disarmament community was happy.
    But in the second term, realist theory came back into vogue. The U.S. government is still committed to the nuclear triad and to modernizing its nuclear delivery platforms. The US government has come from having more than 30,000 operational nuclear weapons in the 1960s to having less than 2,000 today. Far from being a “bloated and unaffordable program,” as the disarmament community likes to refer to the US nuclear weapons portfolio, it is only logical to improve the U.S. government’s capability to deter the adversarial use of nuclear weapons. And it’s also in the national security strategy. But as our government advances the modernization of nuclear weapons, the disarmament community is panicking and grabbing at straws.
    Getting rid of nuclear weapons is a completely different argument than how we ought to respond to “dirty bombs,” but again, that’s where Cirincione’s article leads us. I don’t worry about Teh Terrorists (those scary, 10-foot tall shadowy individuals who haven’t gotten enough radiological material to build a fire alarm) and what they might do if the World doesn’t get rid of all of their nuclear weapons. This is a circular argument, an old argument for people who don’t know better, and one that just doesn’t work.