The Blog

Playing Dirty

First airplanes, now anthrax, could radiological weapons be next? A look at "dirty nukes," the weapons we ignore at our peril.

12:01 AM, Oct 19, 2001 • By BO CRADER
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WASHINGTON TIMES PENTAGON REPORTER Bill Gertz reported last week that U.S. officials believe Osama bin Laden may possess raw radioactive material, the source material for a radiological weapon, a so-called "dirty nuke." A 1999 Air Command and Staff College report by Major Scott Nichelson and Major Darren Medlin describes such radiological weapons as a "credible threat" to the United States, predicting that "a radiological terrorist attack will probably occur in the near future." Yet with all eyes on anthrax, few are paying attention to this high-impact, low-tech threat.

Dirty nukes disperse invisible yet potentially lethal radiation over a general area. Instead of mass destruction, radiological weapons bombard their targets with subatomic particles. Depending on the amount and rate of exposure, the symptoms of radiation sickness can range from internal bleeding, headaches, and extreme nausea to almost instantaneous death. For those fortunate enough to survive such an attack, the immediate effects last anywhere from 24 hours to three weeks--"the worst conceivable hangover," as one Marine specialist puts it--while in the long term, victims are haunted years later by increased rates of cancer and birth defects.

Radiological weapons are appealing to terrorists for a number of reasons. Whereas nuclear weapons require great technical knowledge, radiological weapons are relatively uncomplicated. A scenario described by Nichelson and Medlin involves a conventional bursting charge--a McVeigh-style truck bomb, for instance--embedded with radioactive material--nuclear waste, perhaps. Yet dirty nukes need not be even this complicated. In 1995, according to Jane's Intelligence Review, the Russian Mafia assassinated a Moscow businessman by stashing radioactive pellets in his office, slowly cooking the gentleman's internal organs with gamma rays. Regardless, the mechanics of dirty nukes are simple: Radioactive material, when placed in proximity to humans, can inflict debilitating and potentially lethal injuries.

Compared to the fissionable radioactive material needed for a nuclear detonation--according to Nichelson and Medlin, normally one to eight kilograms of Plutonium-239 or three to twenty-five kilograms of highly enriched Uranium-235--source materials for dirty nukes are relatively easy to procure. Radiopharmaceuticals such as Cobalt-60 can provide harmful doses of radiation, as can certain types of research and industrial waste, according to a 1998 report by the Institute for National Strategic Studies. The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention notes that spent fuel rods from nuclear power plants are an ideal source for dirty nukes. These rods are relatively easy to come by in the provinces of the former Soviet Union. In 1993 a thief stole 13.5 kg of highly enriched Uranium from a shipyard in Murmansk using only a hacksaw. In 1999 an abandoned radon industrial complex in Grozny housing 1,500 Curies of radioactive waste was left unguarded save for a single padlock.

Dirty nukes also afford terrorists a great deal of flexibility in their deployment. Anything from artillery shells to car bombs to dynamite strapped to radioactive material could disperse contaminants over a populated area. A larger explosion could generate a small mushroom cloud of radioactive material. While the effects of dirty nukes and radiological fallout are not fully understood, it is conceivable that under the right conditions a business district, a football stadium, or even the Capitol could become a mini-Chernobyl.

The psychological effects of radiological warfare--a key factor in any terrorist attack--also make dirty nukes an attractive terrorist weapon. The explosion from a radiological dispersion charge has the potential to create an initial panic in which radiation poisoning could be mistaken for chemical or biological attack.

Moreover, the area contaminated by a dirty nuke could--depending on radiation levels--become virtually uninhabitable. During the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur proposed creating a "Cobalt belt," a zone of nuclear contamination 60 miles wide between China and North Korea, to halt the advancement of Chinese troops. If used in America, dirty nukes could contaminate and render useless targets like Capitol Hill, downtown Manhattan, airports, and military bases.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein tested a large radiological bomb and outfitted artillery shells with radioactive material, but he claims to have since discontinued the armament project after being dissatisfied with resulting radiation levels. In 1999 the Pentagon strongly discouraged Slobodan Milosevic from using nuclear waste in a similar fashion during the Balkan conflict.