Modern Age Terrorism and CBRN Risk Matrix – Part IV

This is Fourth Article from the Series of articles based on the concept of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Risk Matrix.

Weaponizing Radioactive Material

A ‘dirty bomb’ is a prime example of weaponizing radioactive materials. It packs up the material together with powerful conventional explosives, and then disperses radioactive particles over a large area. The consensus on dirty bombs is that they amount into lower casualties. Regardless of that, the repercussions of a RW may cause large scale public disruptions, an enormous stress on the health care system and infrastructure; the psychological impacts would also be enormous. As no fission or fusion reactions need to be triggered to produce RW, the technique, albeit complex, is still easier than NW. This approach could be extremely dangerous, considering that even miniscule amounts of radioactive material are likely to be lethal if ingested or inhaled. Particularly after 9/11, there is a constant concern that civilian nuclear reactors would be attacked by terrorist groups in order to seize dangerous radioactive materials and create dirty bombs. Spent fuel rods are capable of causing lethal radioactive doses in a very short span, making them hazardous to even transport and manipulate. Thus, experts are at a consensus that this would limit their use in RDDs.

Overall, the research in this area has focused considerably on the aftermath of 9/11, and extensively discussed the possibility of similarly modeled attacks on nuclear power plants to cause mass destruction. These discussions have been heavily politicized (e.g. by opponents of nuclear energy using it as an argument to highlight nuclear plants as a security risk), making it difficult to reach concrete conclusions. Moreover, many experts are intimately connected to the nuclear industry, creating a need for additional security measures which can be immensely costly. Several contrasting positions have consequently emerged from this debate – some asserting that even the targeted impact of a fully fueled commercial airliner on basic reactor security would be negligible, while others claiming that results from continued nuclear activities could even exceed Chernobyl.

Nuclear Weapons

According to the Lexicon for Arms Control, nuclear weapons are explosive devices that are based on nuclear reactions.  Nuclear explosives are based on self-sustained nuclear reactions, and entail fission or fusion, transforming the nuclear structure of atoms and releasing great bursts of energy in the process. Their assembly often requires fissile material (typically highly-enriched uranium or plutonium) and substantial engineering expertise, and the combination effect of its elements results into a powerful blast wave, thermal radiation, and initial and residual radiation. Experts also contend that smaller nuclear bombs would be available in the future that would be referred to as ‘improvised nuclear devices’ (INDs). The effects of these would be comparable to gigantic conventional explosions and dangerous radiological fallout (even if they fail to reach the critical mass for a self-sustained nuclear reaction). In light of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings deployed by American forces during World War II and the subsequent challenges posed by the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT), NWs have become the epitome of WMD and the symbol of ultimate destructive power.

It is estimated that between 35 to 40 countries possess the knowledge and capacity to attain a nuclear capability in a relatively short time span, which is a long way from around the mid-20th century. In 2009, US, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea were known to possess nuclear capacity of some sort, while Iran was suspected of having such a capability. Of these, India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan were not part of the principal nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). South Sudan, which was formulated in 2011, also did not sign the pact. Despite being of a grand magnitude the NPT possesses several fundamental weaknesses. For instance, many of the countries without substantial NWs seem to be interested in acquiring them, considering that the members who have signed the treaty have done very little about giving them up. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is charged with the enforcement of the NPT, and particularly with diversion of nuclear energy from peaceful uses to NWs or other nuclear explosive devices, has limited privileges. For starters, it cannot prevent indigenous weaponization of states that are not signatories to the treaty. Moreover, it lacks the authority to secure nuclear material, and survey any nuclear activities real time, which limits the overall scope.