Radiological Material AvailableTo Build A Dirty Bomb

Dirty bomb material secured at site in Philadelphia, thousands of sites remain in U.S.

Raw, radiological material that terrorists could use to build a dirty bomb was secured in a Philadelphia school this week.

On March 11, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (a semiautonomous branch of the Energy Department) and Philadelphia’s Temple University announced they had secured a device containing cesium 137 — one of more than two dozen such elements used in medicine and industry that could be turned into a dirty bomb.

“This operation is part of NNSA’s broad strategy to keep dangerous nuclear and radiological material safe and secure by enhancing our nation’s security,” NNSA deputy administrator Anne Harrington said.

A terrorist dirty bomb attack using domestic radioactive sources bomb may seem preposterous, yet the NNSA has identified more than 2,700 vulnerable buildings with high-priority radiological material in the United States alone.

‘This operation is part of NNSA’s broad strategy to keep dangerous nuclear and radiological material safe and secure.’

– NNSA deputy administrator Anne Harrington

As of Feb. 28, 2011, only 251 of these buildings had completed NNSA security enhancements. The agency hopes the rest will do so by 2025 — leaving another 12 years of vulnerability to theft and misuse.

Dirty bombs are far easier to construct than nuclear bombs and do not use fissile material such as enriched uranium or plutonium. Extracting plutonium requires a reactor and enriching uranium is no easy task. Dirty bombs (security forces all them “radiation dispersal devices”) use conventional explosives such as car bombs to scatter radioactive materials through a densely populated area.

The physical damage is limited and the threat of dying from radiation exposure very small with such a device. But a dirty bomb would cause extensive economic damage and social upheaval while instilling panic and fear in civilians.

Philadelphia, New York City, and around the country
In this case, the material came from a medical research irradiator that was removed from Temple University’s Old Medical School Building and transported to a secure location, where it will be prepared for disposal at a federal facility.

The device had been used in medical research for two decades. The cesium-137 left within it would have been an attractive target.

Prior to this decommissioning, Temple University had worked with the NNSA to install security enhancements in all their facilities with high-activity radiological materials. The city of Philadelphia has collaborated with the agency as well to secure 28 buildings with high-activity radiological materials since 2005.

Just over two years ago, another terrorist treasure trove was recovered from a warehouse a mere 25 miles outside of Manhattan. On January 2010, the NNSA secured of high-activity radioactive devices containing enough cesium-137 to make a bomb.

“Properly disposing of more than 3,000 curies of Cesium eliminates the threat this material poses if lost or stolen and used in a dirty bomb,” NNSA administrator Thomas P. D’Agostino said at the time.

The agency has recovered and secured more than 31,000 disused and surplus radioactive sealed sources within the United States, eliminating more than a million curies of what is essentially radiological catnip for terrorists.

Each year, thousands of sources become disused and unwanted in the United States. There are regulatory requirements for in-place secure storage, and the Global Threat Reduction Initiative also helps to remove these sources for permanent and safe disposal.

Yet thousands more civilian sites use radiological materials for commercial, medical and research applications.

Threat level
There are approximately twenty-five different radionuclides used in medicine and industry, from devices to measure product moisture and monitor pipe corrosion through to power sources.

Sources, often referred to as “sealed sources,” tend to be small metal containers with radioactive material sealed inside.

The container is meant to prevent radiation from escaping, and as long as the housing remains intact and sealed (and it is properly handled), it presents no health risk.

To purchase a device with this sort of material requires a licensed and plans to safely and legally dispose of it. The International Atomic Energy Agency ranks the potential harm of such devices from 1 to 5.

Category 1 sources such as irradiators or teletherapy machines could cause death or permanent injury to those in close proximity for a short period of time, ranging from minutes to hours. Category 5 sources like X-ray fluorescence devices could cause minor temporary injury.

Upgrading physical security at civilian radiological sites is paramount, and NNSA works in cooperation with federal, state and local agencies, and private industry to install security enhancements on high priority nuclear and radiological materials.

Some facilities do not have the resources to make these security upgrades and NNSA will provide the funding if the facility agrees to take over future maintenance.

In April 2009, President Obama announced that he would secure vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. He described a terrorist acquiring nuclear weapons as “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.”

The President’s FY 2012 budget request included $2.5 billion, and $14.2 billion over five years, to reduce this global nuclear threat. Yet four years have elapsed and the vulnerable material has not been completely secured.

In most dirty bomb scenarios hundreds may die from the blast, but only a few, if any at all, would die from radioactivity. It is the fear of radiation or terror that a dirty bomb would unleash that makes it so attractive to terrorists.

Even if there isn’t a health threat, the public could be expected to panic about the radiation risks, possibly causing economic paralysis, mass evacuations, and displaced populations reluctant to return to their homes.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is developing a database to track sources. Both this National Radioactive Source Database and the Nuclear Materials Events Database to track lost sources will not be available to the public.


top of page ^

Russians Conduct Huge Nuke Drill

Russian nuclear forces hold large exercise involving movement of strategic and tactical warheads


Russian nuclear forces conducted a major exercise last month that tested the transport of both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons near Europe, according to United States officials.

The exercise raised concerns inside the Pentagon and with the U.S. European Command because it was the largest exercise of its kind in 20 years and involved heightened alert status of Russian nuclear forces.

The nuclear drills were part of other military maneuvers in Russia carried out between Feb. 17 and Feb. 21.

The exercises followed a recent surge in Russian strategic bomber flights that include a recent circling of the U.S. Pacific island of Guam by two Tu-95 Bear bomber and simulated bombing runs by Tu-95s against Alaska and California in June and July.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Wesley P. Miller sought to play down the nuclear exercise but declined to comment on the movement of nuclear weapons and whether nuclear forces went on a heightened state of alert. “We don’t comment on intelligence matters,” he said.

Miller said the nuclear forces maneuvers were “nothing to be concerned about because the Russians, like us, have routine exercises and inspections.”

However, a U.S. official said the exercise was a concern within the U.S. national security community because of the scale of the exercise and the number of weapons being moved. “Certainly it’s a concern when you have this kind of exercise going on,” this official said.

The official said another worry is that Russia appears to be increasing the readiness of its nuclear forces at a time when the U.S. nuclear complex is in urgent need of upgrading and the military is facing sharp automatic defense cuts that could affect U.S. nuclear forces readiness in the future.

Contractors and employees of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the nuclear weapons complex, were notified of possible furloughs under automatic spending cuts that went into effect March 1, the Hill reportedThursday.

Miller said the administration remains committed to a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent. “The administration will ensure continued focus on maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent as part of the president’s comprehensive approach to nuclear security,” under sequester, as the automatic spending cuts are called.

He quoted past Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as saying that no decisions on how cuts will be made but that “nothing will be off the table in our review of how best to proceed.”

According to the officials, the exercise involved Russia’s secretive 12th Main Directorate of the Defense Ministry, known by its acronym as 12th GUMO, the main military unit in charge of all nuclear weapons.

Details of the nuclear exercise are classified, but officials said the 12th GUMO transported a large number of nuclear arms from some of its nuclear munitions depots to storage sites during the exercises.

It could not be learned if the Russians provided advance notification of the strategic exercises.

Declassified U.S. intelligence reports have identified three large nuclear storage facilities near Europe, including one that is located miles from the intersection of the Rusisan, Latvian, and Belarusian borders. Two other nuclear storage complexes close to Europe are located at Zhukovka, near Belarus, and at Golovchino, near the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

The nuclear training coincided with the visit to Moscow by Rose Gottemoeller, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, to discuss a new round of U.S.-Russian strategic arms talks.

The exercise did not come up during the meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Berlin Feb. 26.

Arms control experts say the Russians are required to notify the United States under the New START treaty of major strategic nuclear exercises that involve bomber flights.

It is not known whether the nuclear weapons were transported by air, rail, or truck during the 12th GUMO exercise.

Chief of the Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov mentioned the nuclear exercise Feb. 22 when he said a surprise inspection of both conventional and nuclear forces was held.

Gerasimov said the exercises involved the 12th GUMO and the Central and Southern military districts and that they were the largest maneuvers of its kind in 20 years.

The drills began with orders for forces to go to “higher states of combat readiness and carry out combat training missions,” the website Russian Defense Policy reported. The exercises were also reported by the Voice of Russia and the Russian Defense Ministry website.

Several hundred pieces of equipment, 7,000 troops, and 48 aircraft took part, the general said.

The drills also involved moving forces to exercise areas far from normal deployment locations.

Gerasimov said the 98th Air-Assault Division at Ivanovo and the 4th Air Forces and Air Defense Command near Rostov performed well.

The troops were transported in IL-76 jets to an area near Chelyabinsk, which has large nuclear facilities, in difficult weather conditions.

Forces of a long-range aviation group and air defense also conducted bombing exercises and performed well, Gerasimov said.

The general did not say how the 12th GUMO fared in the exercises but said that overall “a number of systematic deficiencies in the state of combat readiness and lever of personnel training” were uncovered.

A 2008 State Department cable described the 12th GUMO as one of several key military units with direct control over nuclear weapons. “An attack or exploitation of any one of these could leave elements of the arsenal vulnerable,” the cable said. “While the impact on the U.S. might not be immediate, the danger of such elements falling into terrorists’ or extremists’ hands could pose a serious threat to the national security of the United States.”

Another cable said nine 12th GUMO sites were being modernized in 2008.



top of page ^