Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

You may never heard of a radiological dispersal device (RDD). That’s because it’s more often referred to as a dirty bomb. Come to think of it, many don’t even know it by that name, however provocative. (Think of it recited by the English woman in the Orbit gum commercial: Duh-ty Bomb.)

A dirty bomb, though, bears no resemblance whatsoever to a sex bomb. “Dirty” means it’s contaminated with radiation. Which is why you may not be familiar with it. Because it’s not a true nuclear weapon, the RDD is not accorded the level of attention it deserves as a threat comparable to terrorists detonating a nuclear bombs in a U.S. city. But, as long as it’s obscured by the threat of a nuclear explosion, its construction and transport, already much less challenging than with a nuclear weapon, can be expedited.

The fatalities caused by detonation of an RDD likely wouldn’t exceed those caused by a moderate-sized conventional bomb. But clean-up would cost billions and, as for psychological terror sowed by the incident, the “value-added” for the protagonists would be off the charts.

The reason an RDD is easier to create, of course, is because it doesn’t require highly enriched uranium like a nuclear weapon, which has become next to impossible to procure since the nuclear black market was crippled in the wake of Pakistan’s nuclear godfather, A.Q. Khan’s, bust for selling nuclear knowhow and technology to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Materials that are simply radioactive, on the other hand, can be obtained from radioactive sources used for industrial, medical or research purposes.

Another reason that the RDD threat isn’t taken seriously may be because the creation of one has never been verified. The closest any group has come was in 1995 when Chechen rebels deposited a container of cesium-137 in a Moscow park. They chose not to open it and disperse the radioactive material, content instead to simply demonstrate what they were capable of.

In a recent Nonproliferation Review (subscription only) article titled “Preventing Dirty Bombs: Addressing the Threat at the ‘Source’,” Charles Streeper, an international coordinator at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, addresses the RDD threat.

Despite the high consequences of an RDD attack, scant attention has been paid to the dangers posed by the large number of poorly regulated sources that can now be found in nearly every country. The problem has stagnated for decades; news media have reported only selectively on the topic, focusing mainly on serious contamination incidents, and the subject has been excluded from most articles on global security and nonproliferation policy.

But, as a kind of starter weapon of mass destruction, isn’t it beneath, say, al Qaeda? Not necessarily, writes Streeper.

. . . a terrorist group would prefer a nuclear weapon, but an eventual inability by a group to steal or create and use a nuclear weapon might make radiological sources an attractive alternative. . . . there are references to Al Qaeda seeking a radiological weapon. In fact, the group has already resorted to and shown a preference for smaller-scale weaponry and attacks.

It’s hard enough making sure enriched uranium is locked down and accounted for, especially in the former Soviet Union states. But, to give you an idea of the magnitude of the task of tracking radioactive material, Steeper reports that within the United States alone two million licensed sources of radioactive material exist. Further complications arise because

. . . the beneficial applications of sources in the medical, industrial, and agricultural fields should not be impeded. Measures simply have to be put in place to ensure that those beneficial uses are fairly balanced by proper management of dangerous sources throughout their entire life cycle.

That’s easier said than done. Streeper explains.

The international community can depend neither on commercial mechanisms nor the inconsistent implementation of individual states’ regulatory systems to control the life cycles of sources worldwide.

Though the industry doesn’t sufficiently regulate itself (bet you’ve heard that one before), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) formulated a code and, Streeper writes, “its guidelines are positive steps toward a framework for cradle-to-grave management for the life cycle. [But] the drawback is that the Code lacks the legal weight of the NPT [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty].” The solution? “A new, legally binding treaty negotiated at an international convention, modeled using key aspect of the [aforementioned IAEA] Code.”

Another treaty? Especially at a time when New START barely squeaked through the Senate ratification process, despite how watered down it was and compromised by giveaways to the nuclear-weapons industry? And when the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty seem to be going nowhere fast?

But since it doesn’t address nuclear weapons themselves, tied up as they are with a state’s notion of national security — and with some states, their very identities — a treaty might find easier going. Besides, the NPT, despite being violated and ignored at times, has, arguably, been as integral as deterrence to the prevention of states from attacking each other with nuclear weapons. A treaty on radioactive sources might create just enough of an obstacle to keep non-state actors or criminals from securing them.

One Response to Dirty Bombs, Despite Their Name, Not Sexy Enough

  1. Lex says:

    This is a real thing. We had 19 tubes of cesium go missing from the area’s biggest hospital in 1998; ultimately, the case was classified as theft. It was never solved, and the material was never found. Authorities were pretty sure that whoever took it was familiar with radioactive materials, which suggests an organized effort that might be part of a larger pattern.

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