A recent headline: “Syrian Radioactive Materials Out of Regulatory Control: Is Al Qaeda Looking for Dirty Bomb Materials Within Damascus?”
The news reports this past week have been consumed with the UN investigation of the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons, the report by the UN inspection team, and the threat of military retaliation by Western powers. Lost is all of this was this item, buried at the end of a Reuters report talking about Syria’s nuclear research reactor and the possibility of damage to it from any military action:
“Olli Heinonen, a former chief IAEA inspector, said other radioactive materials may be a bigger reason to worry.
‘Syria should have substantial amounts of radiation sources such as Co-60 or Cs-137, which in my view are of a greater concern, if they end up in wrong hands. Normally they are stored in protected vaults.’ “
The paragraphs before and after this rather shocking statement (to me, anyway) ignored the serious issue of old radioactive sources that may or not be protected.
Then just recently we get this:
“Jordan says the United States has helped it boost its nuclear security by improving detection of radioactive materials at its borders as concern grows over instability in neighboring Syria. Jordanian officials have expressed worries that radioactive materials from Syria and its ally Iran could be moved across Jordan’s border to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries in case of an all-out war in Syria. Analysts say that Syria could host ongoing, illicit nuclear weapons activity by Iran and North Korea.”
“The US donated to Jordan 35 personal radiation detectors valued altogether at nearly $106,000 on Sunday. An embassy statement said it will curb nuclear proliferation and illicit trafficking of nuclear and radioactive materials.”
The story immediately segues into chemical weapons and ignores the topic any further.
WMD’s of all types are attracting a lot of attention, but the fact remains that radiological dispersion devices, RDD’s or dirty bombs, present arguably the biggest WMD threat from terrorists. In his study, Homeland Security expert Randall Larson assesses the capability of terrorist groups to commit a WMD attack using various weapons. On a 1 to 10 scale, with 10 being the highest capability to commit such an attack, he says conventional explosives are a 10 while chemical weapons are a 3 for military grade weapons and 6 for simple industrial chemicals. Biological weapons get a 7 while nuclear bombs get a 5. So, where does a dirty bomb fall on his scale?
It’s a 10, right up there with a bag of fertilizer and some kerosene.
And that is the basis for our book, The Rockets’ Red Glare. Our primary goal was to entertain, but we wanted to do it in a realistic way, in a Forecast Fiction way. So we chose dirty bombs, and we showed how they could be acquired with not much more effort than it takes to get conventional explosives.
The delivery mechanism, fireworks on the 4th of July, was designed to scare you, period. An airburst happens to be one of the most effective delivery systems for a dirty bomb. Exploded at ground level within an urban environment limits the dispersion, so a small area gets hit very hard, as accurately described in one scene in the book. A high airburst maximizes the dispersion, so a large area gets relatively small amounts of contamination, resulting in a relatively small risk to those exposed to the point where only localized hot spots would require restoration. A low airburst, like we hypothesized, maximizes the dispersion within an area that will need to be isolated and cleaned up at a very high cost.
It appears there is concern that the turmoil and motivations of the combatants might result in terrorist groups gaining access to these materials and using them within Syria, or even more significantly, smuggling them out for use anywhere their fanaticism dictates – Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the U.S. It is another problem amongst the many resulting from the civil war there, and it is a very significant one.