Discourse surrounding weapons proliferation remains largely reticent on the topic of radiological threats. Nuclear, chemical and biological weapons are readily recognized for the untold threat they pose to international security; however, the use of radioactive materials as weapons of mass disruption has yet to reach public consciousness. The “dirty bomb” is the most commonly recognized radiological dispersal device (RDD), which combines conventional explosives, like dynamite, and radioactive material (1). Although most RDDs would not release enough radioactive material to precipitate death or severe illness, experts worry how, in the hands of terrorists, radiological weapons might be used as an instrument to sow panic and fear among their targets.
For US officials working in the field of nonproliferation, concerns over terrorism and radiological weapons, like dirty bombs, began more than two decades ago. In the 1990s, reports emerged that Al-Qaeda, with the aid of Sudan, was attempting to obtain uranium necessary to create a dirty bomb (2). Today, in light of reports that the Islamic State has secured enough material to contaminate major cities, costing billions of dollars in damage and creating social panic, these worries are renewed (3). In 2014, the terrorist group reportedly stole 40 kg of uranium compounds from a university in Iraq (4). While the threat of radiological attack from the Islamic State is most imminent in the Middle East and North Africa, European governments and the United States are on high alert. Investigators suspect that the ISIL-affiliated brothers responsible for the suicide attack inside Belgium’s international airport last March may have been plotting to gain access to one of the country’s nuclear research laboratories (5). In response to this evolving threat, world leaders convened at the Nuclear Security Summit held March 31 - April 1, 2016 in Washington, D.C., to discuss radiological terrorism. Twenty-three countries present at the Summit agreed to secure their radiological sources by the end of 2016. These countries represent, however, only 14 percent of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Member States (6). This figure indicates that radioactive material in medical, industrial, commercial and research sites in more than 100 countries remain vulnerable to attack from extremist groups (7).
To effectively mitigate this potential crisis, governments and the private sector must work together. Raising awareness about radiological threats, developing a system to track and secure radiological sources and replacing the use of these materials with safer technologies will require a concerted effort (8). Considering the growth of terrorist organizations, the need for permanent threat reduction is more imperative than ever.
(1) “Fact Sheet on Dirty Bombs.” United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 12 Dec. 2014. Web. 21 June 2016.
(2) Stein, Jeff. “How Washington, D.C., Is Preparing for the Next Terrorist Attack.” Newsweek. Newsweek LLC, 21 June 2016. Web. 21 June 2016.
(3) Bieniawski, Andrew, Iliopulos, Ioanna M., and Nalabandian, Michelle. “Radiological Security Progress Report.” Nuclear Threat Initiative. 23 March 2016. Web. 21 June 2016.
(4) Armstrong, Ian. “Assessing the Risk of an ISIS ‘Dirty Bomb.’” Global Risk Insights. 3 March 2016. Web. 21 June 2016.
(5) Neuhauser, Alan. “How Real Is the Dirty Bomb Threat?” U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report, 23 March 2016. Web. 21 June 2016.
(6) Iliopulos, Ioanna M. “Significant Gaps Exist in Security of Radiological Materials.” Nuclear Threat Initiative. 23 March 2016. Web. 21 June 2016.
(7) “The Radiological Threat: Radioactive "Dirty Bombs" Are Weapons of Mass Disruption.” Nuclear Threat Initiative. 30 Dec. 2015. Web. 21 June 2016.
(8) Bieniawski, Andrew, Iliopulos, Ioanna M., and Nalabandian, Michelle. “Radiological Security Progress Report.” Nuclear Threat Initiative. 23 March 2016. Web. 21 June 2016.
Image: © Alexander Ishchenko | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photography-bomb-laying-pripyat-city-image12037312#res14972580">Bomb laying in Pripyat City.</a>
Bailee Ahern has been the Director of Human Security for Global Intelligence since the summer of 2016. In this position, she strives to find the nexus of international affairs and human-interest stories. Outside of GIT, Bailee is a student at the University of Southern California, where she studies political science and international relations. Her research interests are varied. Bailee has spent time in Washington, D.C., studying nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction; at the University of Oxford, researching humanitarian action and peacemaking; and on campus, assisting a professor with political-risk analysis of inter-state conflicts. Both the Columbia Undergraduate Law Review and the USC Journal of Law & Society have published her research. The one through line in all of Bailee's work is a passion for writing. Her column for the Daily Trojan––USC's only student-run newspaper––has become an invaluable outlet to engage her campus and a confluence of all her greatest passions––writing, politics, and social justice.