Radioactive material found in Colombia in July 2018
Colombian police are investigating a box containing ingots of radioactive material after being alerted by residents out of fears that it might be a bomb. What was an already tense situation – the possible discovery of an explosive device – became much more sinister when it was discovered that the box contained radioactive material (reported to include uranium, plutonium and iridium).
This presented an immediate threat to the people investigating the box and the citizens in the neighbourhood. Unless the hazmat team was equipped with radioisotope detectors, then they might not have known for some time how dangerous the material was.
This highlight the need to have continuous monitoring for radioactivity in cities and other strategically important areas.
The need for constant monitoring to protect against nuclear terrorism
Vehicle-mounted, and fixed location detectors play a huge part in protecting a city, but unless your detector is small and flexible enough to move where your thief or terrorist can go then there will always be the chance terrorists could avoid them. Small, accurate detectors that can be discretely carried around by security or other personnel going about their ordinary duties presents the terrorists with an always moving swarm of detectors that are very difficult to avoid. People carried detectors can go where a potential terrorist can go and fill the holes in your defence net.
This form of proactive monitoring is preferable to reacting to an incident which can result in ordinary citizens getting hurt. Continuous networked monitoring helps to create a natural radioactive map of a city or other locations. The naturally occurring area of higher radioactivity would be identified, and anything out of the ordinary would be alerted to a central command desk where experts can then assess the risk and act accordingly. Think of it like speed cameras for radioactivity, if you pass one and you are carrying an isotope (even if it is shielded) you are caught and the appropriate authorities and automatically alerted.
The on-going danger of stolen or missing radioactive material
It’s a disturbing fact that a worrying amount of nuclear material is stolen or lost every year.
The last published statistics are from 2016 and show 189 incidents reported to the ITDB (Incident and Trafficking Database) by 34 States indicating that unauthorised activities and events involving nuclear and other radioactive material, including incidents of trafficking and malicious use. More recent incidents range from small amounts (one gram) of weapons-grade plutonium missing from the University of Idaho in May 2018 to more significant amounts of material that are being smuggled by organised gangs.
How big is the problem of missing radioactive material?
A few years ago, the Washington Post published a map with an overview of significant losses and thefts of nuclear material – it makes chilling reading.
Not all of this material is suitable for making an actual nuclear bomb. It is much more likely that the material will be used in a dirty bomb – which is a conventional explosive device surrounded or containing radioactive material that is then thrown out with the explosion to spread nuclear contamination around a wide area. This spreads fear as well as harm and given the persistence of radioactivity, could render an area of a city uninhabitable for many years.
Dirty Bombs are not a theoretic threat
It is known that there have already been two dirty bombs built, but not used.
In 1995 in Russia, Chechen rebels directed reporters from a Moscow television studio to a container of caesium-157 in a local park. No conventional explosives were attached to the container. The second incident took place in a suburb of Grozny, the Chechen capital, where an explosive mine was found with radioactive material attached to it – in both instances no explosion took place, but the threat and the capability were clear.
Liam Fox wrote about this incident in his book: Rising Tides: Facing the Challenges of a New Era.
New Scientist offers an account of this incident and a round-up of other incidents: Risk of radioactive “dirty bomb” growing
A new way to guard against radioactive threats becomes a necessity
It is only by adopting new methods of radiation detection can these incidents be guarded against. We are facing an enemy that is prepared to inflict maximum damage to civilian populations, seeks high-profile publicity generating attacks and is prepared to sacrifice its soldiers in the pursuance of its goal, makes radiological attacks a viable and attractive option. The nuclear material is loose in the wild, and unlike a conventional nuclear bomb, no specialised training outside of being able to build a conventional explosive is needed.