A representative of atomic energy commission holds a Geiger counter as he measures atom radiation at ground zero, the site of explosion, at the French nuclear tests' site in In-Ekker, near Ain Meguel, about 170 km (106 miles) from the southern Algerian to
A representative of atomic energy commission holds a Geiger counter as he measures atom radiation at ground zero, the site of explosion, at the French nuclear tests' site in In-Ekker, near Ain Meguel, about 170 km (106 miles) from the southern Algerian town of Tamanrasset, February 25, 2010.
Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

As the world braces for a new superpower nuclear arms race, something less flashy keeps security officials around the world up at night: the dirty bomb. The prospect of this radioactive device in the hands of terrorists or madmen is, according to experts, very real and very hard to combat.

The world’s post–World War II nuclear nonproliferation commitments are crumbing. Nations large and small, some with stable governments, some with shaky or autocratic regimes, want to join the nuclear club. An unintended consequence of this trend is the creation of global gray and black markets for radioactive material. And terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) are ready to buy.

Detection technology is still catching up with the problem, and coordination among international, national, and local counterterrorism officials leaves much to be desired. Of course, despite recurring terrorist attacks in the Arab world and Northern Africa, Europe, and the United States, the odds are still low that terrorists will acquire radioactive materials. But the stakes—large-scale mass death and radiation poisoning—are so high that preventing dirty bomb proliferation should be a first priority.


In one investigation in Chisinau, Moldova, samples of uranium-235 and cesium-135 were seized by police when a smuggler offered an informant who was posing as a buyer for ISIS enough cesium to contaminate several city blocks—and all for $2.5 million. An in-depth investigation into dirty bombs by the Associated Press revealed four other attempts by criminal networks to traffic radioactive materials through Moldova. Last spring, in a New York federal court, another perpetrator, this time a Colombian national, was convicted for obtaining enriched uranium with the purpose of supplying a South American–based terrorist group with a dirty bomb to attack U.S. military personnel or a U.S. embassy. What investigators from INTERPOL (the International Criminal Police Organization), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and various national intelligence agencies have found is that radioactive materials that can be used in a dirty bomb are the new illicit trade of choice.

Advocates of a nuclear ban, such as Max Tegmark, Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), have argued that since dirty bombs are not as powerful as nuclear weapons, they should not be of primary concern. But the issue, most police counterintelligence officials say, is the stakes, not the risk.

A Portuguese KFOR soldier passes a bomb crater January 9, 2001 as he carries scientific equipment to measure radioactivity levels in lake Radonjic
A Portuguese KFOR soldier passes a bomb crater January 9, 2001 as he carries scientific equipment to measure radioactivity levels in lake Radonjic, some 70km south-west from Pristina. The European Commission Spokesman Gunnar Wiegand said the Commission had on Tuesday decided to set up a "working party" of EU scientists to give an opinion on the potential health and environment effects from the use of depleted uranium ammunition during the Balkan conflicts.
Consider, for example, what would have happened if the perpetrators of any of the terror attacks on American soil had involved a dirty bomb. Hospitals would have had to deal with contaminated first responders, leading to delays in emergency treatment. If large amounts of radioactive material were used, the attack could affect several blocks around where the incident took place. Victims would have suffered the effects of radiation poisoning.

Chechen separatists, like those who were linked to the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon attack, have a history of threatening and attempting to use stolen radioactive materials in terror attacks against Russia. In one 1995 incident, a Chechen separatist showed containers at an international conference that he claimed contained cobalt-60, cesium-137, or strontium-90, and told a Russian television where to find a container of cesium-137 that he claimed to have buried in Moscow's Izmailovskiy Park. That case merely illustrated the threat, but the IAEA database has thousands of reports from member states about radioactive materials that are unaccounted for or are found in the wrong hands. And on Tuesday, the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, General John E. Hyten, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he is worried about drone threats to U.S. nuclear facilities. 


The IAEA was created in 1957 to marshal the development of radioactive material. It now has 168 members. Its dual goals are to supervise the international development of nuclear weapons and promote peaceful uses of nuclear technology. A related 1968 agreement, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), aims to prevent the spread of weapons technology. Several other treaties have come into effect in recent years, including the 2016 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM), which covers the physical protection of nuclear materials in international transport, including protection of nuclear material and of nuclear facilities against acts of sabotage.

Keeping the nuclear genie in the bottle has been an uphill battle. To be sure, the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been limited, but the spread of nuclear technology has not. For one thing, the vast majority of countries use radioactive materials in hospitals for cancer treatments, in industry for construction, and in research. Some of these materials can be combined with conventional explosives to make a dirty bomb. So, at the December meeting of the IAEA, its director-general Yukiya Amano told member states: “Terrorists and criminals will try to exploit any vulnerability in the global nuclear security system. Any country, in any part of the world, could find itself used as a transit point.” And Amano’s predecessor, Hans Blix, said during a conversation when he visited the United Nations, “There is a risk of dirty bombs…and not only cesium; you have cobalt, and you have other radioactive substances that are used industrially and in hospitals and can be stolen.”

In addition, the consensus around nuclear weapons nonproliferation is waning. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass explained that part of the problem is the existence of non-state actors. The other issues are a breakdown in the traditional post–World War II assumptions of sovereignty and conflict, and a lack of appetite for preventative military action, even in the case of a dangerous nuclear-equipped rogue state such as North Korea. The NPT, some say, has become a leaky boat taking on water, with rogue states using their nuclear prowess without consequences.

The international community might have learned its lesson with Abdul Qadeer Kahn, the creator of the Pakistani nuclear program, who admitted to selling nuclear bomb technology to North Korea, Libya, and Iran. Indeed, a cash-strapped or isolated nation, such as North Korea under Kim Jong Un, poses more of a risk for selling technology or nuclear material than a potential for self-annihilating use of a weapon in an attack.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama made the point at the Nuclear Summit in 2016: 2,000 tons of nuclear materials are stored around the world, he said. They are vulnerable to theft and to being transported across national borders, creating the risk of ISIS or other extremists getting nuclear material—which remains, as he said, “one of the greatest threats to global security.”

Along the same lines, in November 2016, the IAEA warned that Iran had notified it that highly radioactive material was missing from its Bushehr nuclear power plant, including a supply of iridium-192, an unstable isotope that can be used to manufacture dirty bombs. The material was later recovered, but the event underscored the need for security, particularly at facilities with advanced nuclear technology. Another case of missing material came in February 2016, when Baghdad reported to the IAEA that radioactive material was stolen from a storage facility near the city of Basra.

Indeed, according to the IAEA’s Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB), which records illicit trafficking involving nuclear and radioactive material outside of regulatory control, as of January 2016, participating nations had reported a total of 2,889 confirmed incidents of unauthorized possession and related criminal activities, reported theft or loss, and other activities and events. The number of incidents reached a peak in the early 1990s; since 2009, the ITDB has received reports of scrap metal shipments contaminated with enriched uranium, an issue of concern, according to the IAEA.

In short, the potential for a dirty bomb strike is real.


“Smugglers are always the weakest link, this is a lucrative business, so those people who are involved in drug trafficking or human trafficking are more likely to get involved,” Amano said in a wide-ranging conversation in IAEA’s New York office. The Moldova seizure, he said, was a “typical example.” In that case, the IAEA trained the customs officers and border guards and provided detection equipment. Amano argues that detection technology is improving: “Detectors are not that expensive, some of them are the size of your cellphone and cost around 1000 euros: the small ones are not that sophisticated—you can just tell whether someone has some nuclear material or radioactive material—but it is still more effective than nothing; the bigger ones are able to determine the nature of the material, but those are much, much more expensive.”

Unfortunately, many vulnerable countries often do not use these tools, partly because of cost, but mostly because of lack of training and technology. Training, Amano said, is particularly important where entry point detection—for example, at the borders into Europe from the Middle East and Eastern Europe—is often limited. The IAEA will, in some cases, pay for the training in and procurement of radiation detection equipment. In other cases, it encourages countries to allocate funds: Armenia was able to strengthen its efforts to combat nuclear smuggling and develop nuclear forensics capabilities, in part through a security mission of the agency; Azerbaijan received IAEA assistance to strengthen nuclear security during the Baku European Games in 2015; and the list includes projects in three dozen countries.

“We need to train people that there exists this danger and they should be familiar with nuclear material, they should be familiar with detection equipment,” Amano said, urging more action. If countries are in need of the equipment, the IAEA provides it, as well as assistance, training, and other equipment, which are all essential to prevention.

Within borders, nuclear facilities are also vulnerable. For example, the IAEA has reported recent attempted cyberattacks on two nuclear facilities. The first attempt occurred as an ISIS plan, uncovered in 2016, to target a Belgian nuclear facility. Two men linked to the Brussels attacks recorded ten hours of secret surveillance video of a top Belgian nuclear scientist likely hoping to use his security clearance to try to obtain radioactive material. Amano would not say where the second cyberattack occurred, but said that threats against nuclear facilities are more difficult and, therefore, more infrequent than smuggling. The threat of smuggling, including of highly enriched uranium is real: “Anything they can get their hands on, they will steal.”

Thus, the issue for counterterrorism officials is not just nuclear facilities and not just nuclear weapons–wielding nations. There is nuclear material in many countries, including cobalt, cesium, and uranium and plutonium, which are used for medical purposes or industry and research—materials that smugglers want to get their hands on.

Regardless of whether the fear is justified, some people who can afford it are planning their evacuation. “People come to me to advise them on how to leave the city—fast,” says former New York Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, who, along with former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, began the development of a high-tech system of counterterror surveillance after the September 11 attack. These folks want a plan to have a boat ready, a plane after that, and citizenship elsewhere to wait it out if an attack occurs, which explains the spike in citizenship applications to New Zealand, he said.

A container reportedly used to transport cobalt-60 (R) that was being sent from a hospital to a radioactive waste-storage center, is seen at a home near where the dangerous radioactive medical material was found in a truck in the town of Hueypoxtla, near
A container reportedly used to transport cobalt-60 (R) that was being sent from a hospital to a radioactive waste-storage center, is seen at a home near where the dangerous radioactive medical material was found in a truck in the town of Hueypoxtla, near Mexico City December 5, 2013.
Henry Romero / Reuters

How can the world deal with the dirty bomb threat? One approach is to tackle the development and sale of higher-technology radiation detection systems.

The Domain Awareness System (DAS), developed by Microsoft Corporation and New York City, aggregates global intelligence with local radiation detectors, closed-circuit television, and databases. It also involves outfitting thousands of police officers with radiation detectors: "We have fixed detectors spread throughout the city. All of this rings into a central control center where it shows up on maps that are linked to 9,000 cameras and license plate readers," New York City Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller told Foreign Affairs.

Kelly said that the system, which has been used in Washington, D.C., and Sao Paulo, Brazil, is available in New York City and for licensing to foreign governments. This is where the UN and the IAEA could provide the means for other nations to acquire the DAS. The IAEA, for example, is already working with New York City “to apply the similar sort of system in Mecca,” Amano said.

The advantage of the DAS is that the cameras and databases are linked, which is not the case in some cities such as London, Kelly said, where there are many cameras but they are not linked. Today, Kelly also noted, most big ports have radiation detectors, and New York City even has a submarine that goes to ships that are coming into ports of entry. But nothing is foolproof, and a radiological element sealed in lead may not be detected. “That is an area of vulnerability, because you can’t check every ship…every container that’s coming in.”

Howard Stoffer, Associate Professor of National Security at the University of New Haven, who served in the Foreign Service of the United States and as the deputy executive director of the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate of the UN Security Council, says the new counterterror office proposed by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is a good place to develop a global strategy for pooling information and countering violent extremism. Stoffer proposes adding DNA analysis to the data bank: “If you have DNA analysis, you can’t hide; even fingerprints can be faked, but not DNA, so if the DNA doesn’t match the passport with someone coming into the country, you know you have to investigate.” Saudi Arabia, he said, built a lab in Djibouti for forensic sciences so they can avoid having terrorists pose as refugees and disappear from the camps.

Networking is also extremely important. Countries need to share information and adhere to the nonproliferation treaty, establish a national regime to report incidents, and cooperate in case of problems—and also to criminalize breaches. The IAEA has its database; countries are supposed to share their own intelligence with the agency when they join the system. Recently, the IAEA and the NYPD have worked together, Amano said. But counterintelligence officials in several cities, including Berlin, have said that information sharing is not yet adequate, and some rogue states such as North Korea do not allow these organizations to monitor its use of nuclear and radiation materials. In any event, North Korea has not allowed inspectors in since 1994.

South Korea is understandably nervous about both an actual nuclear missile attack by North Korea and smuggling of nuclear materials by Pyongyang. When South Korean’s Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, president of the International Conference on Nuclear Security, spoke at a December 2016 IAEA meeting, he said that the challenges are daunting, citing the arrest of smugglers attempting to sell cesium to ISIS in Moldova, the attempted breach of the nuclear facility in Brussels, and “intense cyber attacks on our nuclear facilities from North Korea.” International cooperation, he said, is key to strengthening nuclear security.

In such cases and in others, drones can also be useful. Smugglers have been known to use them, but security officials can also employ them to detect nuclear materials. Cities in the United States are already doing so: “If you use the drones to fly around the area you suspect, you can detect where there exists a nuclear or radioactive source,” Amano said.

Finally, criminalizing the possession of the materials for dirty bombs is imperative. In the United States, for example, the federal 2004 Radiological Dispersal Device law made it illegal for any person to produce, transfer, or import any weapon designed to release radiation or radioactivity. The first conviction under the statute took place in December 2016. If the world gets its prevention system right—through intelligence sharing, security best practices, and a recommitment for nonproliferation—perhaps there won’t be a next attempt.

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