The Radiological Character of Dirty Bombs

Radiological Terrorism: Dirty Bombs

Numerous countries around the world have a great concern about terrorism. Being one of the modern threats to the civilized world, it endangers peace, stability, and security in many states. In the bloodiest of its forms, its representatives seek global recognition through mass destruction and homicide. Moreover, terrorism has strong connections with the criminal world that result in obtaining weaponry and selling drugs. Terrorists implement various methods to chase their aims, which leads to mass killings and the demolition of infrastructures. Furthermore, from time to time the types of their attacks change depending on the methods of prevention that different states practice. A terrorist attack with the use of dirty bombs is one of the latest threats in this perspective. Therefore, the question of radiological security should be of the highest priority in the list of the Homeland Security tasks of any country. Consequently, the following paper argues about the threat of radiological terrorism and the methods of its prevention. Moreover, the study assumes that the analysis of the fundamental factors of the use of such weaponry benefits the security of the citizens and the state.

The Background of a Dirty Bomb

The radiological character of dirty bombs united with its explosive power may be the object of horror for many people. However, it should be obvious that dirty bombs are not a nuclear weapon by any means. Another term for these explosives is “radiological dispersion device” (RDD). Such formula explains that the essence of this weapon lies in its combination of an explosive with the spread of radioactive elements (Figure 1). Thus, it is an ordinary explosive because it involves no nuclear reaction. Consequently, the degree of the explosion is significantly less destructive and fatal as compared to a nuclear weapon. Moreover, it involves less adverse factors than nuclear explosives do. However, the term “radiological dispersion” means that after the explosion its parts emit background radiation. As explained by the National Academies and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (n.d.), the nuclear explosion comprises “fine particles of radioactive dust and other debris that can blanket large areas … with “fallout” (1). On the contrary, the majority of “the radioactive particles dispersed by a dirty bomb would likely fall to the ground within a few city blocks or miles of the explosion” (The National Academies and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security n.d., 1).

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Furthermore, the threat of such weapon depends on the variety of its design that may vary in the size of a truck or a suitcase. Moreover, in the case of the explosion within the city, the radioactive contamination becomes a threat to its citizens in a long time perspective (Figure 2). The radioactive particles after the explosion of RDD remain in buildings and on the streets, decontaminating the nearby area with radiation (Public Health Seattle & King County n.d., 1). In addition, the procedures of cleaning such areas may cost up to millions of dollars (Public Health Seattle & King County n.d., 1).

Among other facts about RDD, one has to mention that despite the adverse effect of radiation, the explosion represents the major danger. As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (n.d.) claims, only individuals, who happen to be near the blast side, would receive an amount of radiation, which would cause immediate severe disease. Nevertheless, “the radioactive dust and smoke can spread farther away and could be dangerous to health if people breathe in the dust, eat contaminated food, or drink contaminated water” (US Department of Health and Human Services n.d.).

Due to the lesser threat from the emitting radiation, the terrorists may limit the usage of RDD to two scenarios. The first scenario is the contamination of the city’s industrial infrastructure and living areas. The second one is the creation of psychological pressure and fretfulness among the citizens of the contaminated region. However, the health effects of radiation emitted by RDD depend on several factors. They include the amount of radiation absorbed by the body, radiation type, external or internal means of exposure, and the length of the time exposed (The National Academies and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security n.d., 2). Consequently, the degree of the adverse effects of radiation and explosion depends on the skills and knowledge of a terrorist. Thus, the mentioned issues make the threat of a terrorist attack using RDD one of the primary aspects of the tasks of homeland security departments.

Possible Terrorist’s Scenarios

To prevent an attack with the use of RDD, one should assess all possible factors that influence the production, delivery, and activation of a dirty bomb. It is an obvious thing that combining the explosives and the radioactive elements should not be a complicated task and involve intricate schemes. Therefore, one of the most difficult tasks for a terrorist is to find explosives and radioactive elements. The chosen materials and the desired degree of explosion and contamination would affect the actual size of the bomb. Thus, Porterfield (2005) argues that any radioactive material would serve to build RDD (20). However, terrorists would likely prefer weapons-grade uranium or plutonium to make these devices more destructive (Porterfield 2005, 20). Porterfield (2005) suggests that any terrorist may attempt to receive radioactive materials in various facilities such as hospitals, industrial plants, and radioactive waste areas (20). Consequently, the process of creating a bomb with medical equipment, for instance, would lead to lesser adverse effect. However, this method is much easier and safer for the terrorist as compared to the production of a dirty bomb with uranium or plutonium. One also has to mention that scholars argue about the rationale behind using uranium as an RDD material.

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Thus, Medalia (2011) claims that the technical experts rarely consider uranium as an RDD material because the amount of emitted radiation is small (9). In contrast, plutonium endangers the community due to the possibility of contaminating the air with alpha particles (Medalia 2011, 9). On the other hand, terrorists attempting to create RDD are likely to use any materials in any proportions pursuing the aim of psychological threat. Another reason for the utilization of various materials is the absence of knowledge about radioactive elements and their adverse effects. On the contrary, the terrorists may combine some parts of radiological equipment from a medical facility with kilograms of a blasting agent to compensate the lack of radioactive pollution. Therefore, it is highly possible that RDD produced by inexperienced people would endanger the community by the destructive power of the explosion and not the radioactive contamination. However, the degree of the psychological pressure because of the use of a radioactive agent would be great in any case. The public and the media “tend to lump nuclear weapons and RDDs together, probably because both involve radioactive materials” (Medalia 2011, 9). Thus, the homeland security departments should inform the society and the media about all the facts about RDD.

Consequently, the next stage after the production of RDD is its delivery to the desired location. One may define the location by analyzing the aim of a terroristic act. For instance, the terrorist may focus either on the explosion itself and its immediate destructive effect or on the contamination. Both approaches also depend on the accessibility of the infrastructure. Thus, terrorists usually select highly populated regions. Among them, one can name areas, where the large groups of people reside or attend, including schools and other educational institutions, churches, factories, among others. Furthermore, the targets can include occasionally crowded areas such as festivals, concerts, and lines in the shops (for instance, the famous lines for getting brand new devices from Apple).

In case it is difficult for the terrorists to combine the explosive and the radiation emitter, they might choose to bomb a facility containing it. However, the following study distinguishes such terroristic attacks from those with the use of RDD. Moreover, among the targets terrorists may choose the city’s water treating facilities. The contaminating materials might get into the water and spread around the systems of water supply, drainage, and sewage. In addition, terrorists could detonate RDD in the air, involving the wind power as an additional factor of spreading. It is clear that the last cases of the detonation of a dirty bomb have the accent on the adverse effect of radiation contamination unlike the explosive power of RDD.

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Furthermore, the transportation of a dirty bomb depends on its size and radiation emission factor. For instance, one may choose between the most famous means of delivery that is human or car bombing. In case RDD bears a great amount of radioactive agent, the terrorist endangers oneself. Such a case might turn the terrorist act to be ineffective due to the death of the terrorist before reaching the target. Thus, as in the case with powerful explosions, the terrorist has to deal with “car delivery”. Moreover, in cases of water contamination, one might assemble RDD within several stages on the site preserving secrecy. However, one should note that the contemporary development in the sphere of the production of air drones might bring one more issue of RDD delivery. For instance, a terrorist might use a drone or a quadrotor (which is much cheaper) armed with explosives and radiation emitter. Despite the ability of creating an explosion in the air, such device might overcome long distances and reach a variety of places. The homeland security department of any country should thoroughly investigate mentioned scenarios with the aim of development of a comprehensive strategy in prevention and response in case of RDD attack.

Prevention Strategy

The next stage of the response to RDD threat is prevention strategy. Its peculiarity should rest on the analysis of the features described above preventing the creation and delivery of dirty bombs. Thus, there should be the implementation of stages of prevention of obtaining the radioactive resources and the explosives as well as the defense of the potential targets.

First, one should assess the risks of obtaining the radioactive materials and wastes by the terrorists. Usually, the local and state security services protect such facilities and radioactive waste disposals preventing them from intrusion and theft. Moreover, medical units containing radioactive equipment restrict the admission of unauthorized citizens. Such measures also allow tracking and detection of people suspected of terrorism. Thus, it is difficult for any person to obtain the radioactive materials from legal institutions. Consequently, terrorists are more likely to use illegal ways of obtaining the materials such as the black market. Therefore, the state security departments have to reveal illegal storage and transportation of explosives and radioactive substances. As a rule, a wide range of facilities uses radioactive identification detectors to expose possibly harmful substances at the entrances and exits of different institutions. However, after the September 11 attack, the aims of homeland security departments shifted towards resistance to a broad range of terroristic threats. Consequently, the state equipped various institutions and special security departments with gross counter and energy sensitive radiation detectors. Moreover, some of such equipment is portable which allows measuring the levels of radiation in any location (Figure 3).

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For instance, Smalling claims that “One of the more commonly used gross counters is the radiation pager deployed to US Customs Agents and to many state or local law enforcement agencies” (52). Such devices ensure the protection of the facilities and the citizens from dirty bombs. They also locate radiation detectors in the facilities that require special protection because of the chances of the contaminating radiation spread. Therefore, there have been no terroristic RDD attacks in the recent years. As stated by Porterfield (2005), “since dirty bombs have never been used, many of the effects suggested by experts remain hypothetical” (20). However, despite the hypothetical character of the issue, the country is well-protected against the analyzed threats. Such protection ensures the security of the use, storage, and distribution of the radioactive materials throughout the country.

Analyzing the discussed issue, one concludes that a terroristic attack using RDD is a potential threat to the civilized world. It should be distinguished from the nuclear weapons due to the different impact and scales of destruction. However, it may threaten the local community because of the damage to infrastructures, homicide, and radioactive contamination. Among the factors that affect the degree of the threat from RDD, one can name the target, the substances within the bomb, and the means of transportation. It turns out that the US Homeland Security and other departments took care of the possible RDD terroristic attacks. The result of this is the radiological protection of various facilities and infrastructures with high sensitive radiation detectors. Consequently, this factor adds to the reason there have been no registered RDD terroristic attacks in the country. Thus, the study assumes that the state protects itself and its citizens against possible terroristic attacks with dirty bombs.

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