On Tuesday India issued a widespread call for international action regarding nuclear security.
Nuclear terrorism is at the forefront of nearly every national security and counter terror expert’s mind in the last decade or so. Although the likelihood of a terrorist group obtaining a fully assembled nuclear bomb is slim there is a strong possibility that one may obtain the requisite materials to construct a radiological dispersion device (RDD), more commonly known as a dirty bomb.
Unlike a conventional nuclear weapon an RDD does not use fission or fusion to obtain the dramatic and devastating explosion that most come to expect when thinking of a nuclear weapon. Rather, an amount of harmful radioactive material is packed around a conventional explosive. That explosive is used to disperse the harmful material in a wide area via detonation. The goal of such a device is not necessarily widespread destruction but rather the contamination of the area and instigation of mass fear.
India’s First Secretary in the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations Abhishek Singh said “There is widespread recognition that the threat of nuclear terrorism is one of the pressing challenges facing the international community. Responsible national action and effective international cooperation are therefore required for strengthening nuclear security to prevent vulnerable nuclear material falling into hands of non-state actors.”
Indeed one of the most efficient ways to obtain radiological material for use in dirty bombs is from either the black market or orphan sources. An orphan source is radiological material designed for use in legitimate industrial applications. An example of an orphan source is Cobalt-60, which is used medically for radiation therapy. The CDC lists the effects of Cobalt-60: “external exposure to large sources of Co-60 can cause skin burns, acute radiation sickness, or death. Most Co-60 that is ingested is excreted in the feces; however, a small amount is absorbed by the liver, kidneys, and bones. Co-60 absorbed by the liver, kidneys, or bone tissue can cause cancer because of exposure to the gamma radiation.”
How would somebody get ahold of an orphaned Cobalt-60? Theft is the most common method. In December 2013 a truck transporting a dismantled radiation treatment device was stolen in Mexico. This device contained significant quantities of Cobalt-60. In this particular instance the truck and the materials were recovered a few days later, but this illustrates the risk of terrorists, or other fringe groups, obtaining sources of radiological material.
India has legitimate reasons to worry about nuclear and radiological threats from terrorist groups. In August of 2013 Mujahideen leader Ahmad Zarar Siddibappa, also known as Yasin Bhatkal was captured by Indian authorities. During his interrogation he divulged information that suggested he attempted to acquire a nuclear weapon from his superior based in Pakistan. This superior, Riyaz Bhaktal, told Yasin that “anything can be arranged in Pakistan.”
Pakistani nuclear security is of particular concern to the US intelligence community. In August 2012 armed militants attacked Minhas air force installation where an estimated 100 nuclear weapons are stored. The Pakistani military repelled the attack leaving eight insurgents and one security official dead. That same year Pakistani military officials bolstered security at Dera Ghazi Khan installation amidst signs of impending extremist attack.
Whether or not the Taliban or other groups will attempt to gain control of Pakistani nuclear weapons or material is still up for debate. Perhaps they won’t need to expend the significant resources necessary to assault a military installation, break into a secured nuclear storage area and then find a way to transport the material all the while risking pursuit and substantial international intervention. The sources necessary for construction of an RDD can be had by theft or the black market.
In a headline which stunned the international community and shattered perceptions of nuclear technology being limited to industrialized nations, Abdul Qadeer Khan, a Pakistani nuclear weapons scientist, was arrested in 2004 for trafficking in nuclear technology and fissile material. Without going into tremendous detail, AQ Khan’s network was believed to be supplying nuclear technology, designs and expertise to Iran, North Korea, Libya and other undisclosed nations for over two decades. It is also important to note that, in the black market, Khan’s was not the sole network for obtaining nuclear material.
In light of the availability of orphaned sources, poor security controls at nuclear facilities in some parts of the world and black market networks the likes of AQ Khan, Singh is undeniably right in calling for more stringent controls on nuclear material. With the rise of terrorist organizations worldwide the threat of a nuclear weapon or a radiological dispersion device is higher than ever. Hopefully it will not take a major attack to realize.