Nuclear terrorism is a severe and credible threat. In July, the Washington Post reported that Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) had almost ‘stumbled on the ingredients for a dirty bomb.’
This is perhaps unsurprising given that the tools to create a dirty bomb have been available for many years. As early as 1995, Chechen terrorists were able to plant a radioactive parcel in a park in Moscow. Although they did not detonate the device, some experts believe that it is only a matter of time before a dirty bomb is used.
Today, the Black Sea region is the heart of the world’s nuclear black market. Russia retains the world’s largest nuclear stockpile, which is dispersed across hundreds of sites, many poorly guarded due to corruption and political instability. While Russia is likely the primary source for black-market radiological material, former Soviet countries between Russia and the Black Sea similarly possess weakly guarded nuclear and radiological materials. In theory, these materials can easily be transported by land or via Black Sea ports to actors that seek to use it, including non-state actors in Turkey, Iraq or Syria.
Understandably, the most widely analysed worst-case scenario concerning nuclear terrorism has primarily focused on terrorists detonating a nuclear bomb. Although this is a terrifying possibility, it remains extremely difficult to manufacture or steal a nuclear weapon.
Indeed, producing weapons-usable, ‘highly-enriched’ uranium (HEU) – at least 20% U-235 and probably much higher – or plutonium is almost certainly beyond the ability of most terrorist groups. The enrichment process is highly technical and expensive, and plutonium can only be created inside a nuclear reactor. Similarly, nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials are (comparatively) tightly guarded, mostly in high-security military installations.
It would be considerably easier for a terrorist group to create and use a dirty bomb or ‘radiological dispersion device’ (RDD), which would spread dangerous radioactive substances over a large area. The potential threat posed by an RDD is clearly demonstrated by a radioactive contamination incident in the Brazilian city of Goiânia in 1987. Here, scavengers in a scrapyard deliberately broke open the radioactive capsule inside an abandoned teletherapy unit, containing an isotope of caesium-137.
The men distributed the curious glowing material as a gift to friends and family, contaminating 249 people and killing four. The incident caused $36 million in damage and produced three football fields of radioactive waste. 112,000 people sought medical attention, fearing that they had been contaminated. An RDD could provoke a similar reaction, overwhelming hospitals and causing a breakdown in public health services. In Goiânia, contaminated soil or buildings had to be removed wholesale; a similar clean-up operation in central London, for example, could necessitate the demolition or abandonment of part of the city.
Although only a handful of radioactive substances are suitable to create a RDD, many of these are widely available, being used in hospitals, universities, mines and other civilian sites. From 1993–2014, 1,150 incidents of theft or loss of radiological materials were reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), many of which could be used in an RDD.
Caesium-137, a radioactive powder, is of particular concern because it is dispersible, water soluble and can be made into an aerosol spray. Those seeking to use it for destructive purposes might not use a dirty bomb, but rather contaminate the water supply or target an enclosed space such as a subway system. With no tell-tale explosion, it could take hours for the attack’s source or the attack itself to be discovered.
Worryingly, there is a well-documented trade in dirty-bomb ingredients in the Black Sea region. Large ports such as Batumi and Odessa and frozen conflict zones such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria are known as hotspots for radiological (and indeed nuclear) trafficking. In these locations, criminal syndicates exploit the endemic corruption present, while utilising existing human, drugs and weapons trafficking routes to smuggle radioactive materials.
In particular, Georgia and Armenia have seen several notable cases in recent years.
In 2003, Garik Dadayan, an Armenian, was sentenced to jail but served only 2.5 years for trying to smuggle 200 g of weapons-grade uranium into Georgia. In 2010, Dadayan supplied weapons-grade uranium to two smugglers who thought they were selling a sample to Islamic terrorists.
Moldova is another important node in the radiological and nuclear smuggling network. In 2011, investigations in Moldova uncovered a deal to sell bomb-grade uranium to a buyer in Sudan. The seller ranted about his hatred of America and claimed to have 10 kg of uranium and access to plutonium. The deal was orchestrated by a Russian-Ukrainian citizen known as the ‘the Colonel’ who lived in Transnistria and was found to have paid a corrupt policeman to transport the materials.
Since 2015, meanwhile, Russian crime groups have made four known attempts to sell illegal radioactive materials in the country. Again in 2015, two Moldovans were arrested for trying to sell Caesium-135. The dealer was revealed to have claimed that ISIS could potentially use the substance to make a dirty bomb. The supplier was supposedly a Russian FSB officer who had access to more dangerous material, but when the arrests were made, the supplier vanished.
Such examples reveal the emergence of an unholy alliance in the Black Sea region between corrupt security personnel, organised crime groups and non-state buyers, spawned by corruption, poverty and weak rule of law. In the words of one Moldovan investigator, ‘as long as the smugglers think they can make big money without getting caught, they will keep doing it’.
Combating nuclear and radiological terrorism is a daunting task. Various responses have been adopted: the US has led the way, spending $18 million in Georgia alone to improve border controls. To combat corruption, meanwhile, monthly salaries of border control officers in Georgia have been increased from $165 in 2010 to $472 in 2016.
A further option to reduce the threat posed by radiological sources is to phase out their usage and, where possible, replace them with non-radioactive alternatives. For example, hospitals in Norway have stopped using caesium chloride (the substance that leaked in Goiânia) to irradiate blood, and now use X-ray technology instead. However, without a significant expansion in international efforts to secure radiological materials in the Black Sea region, smuggling activities will continue, and the possibility of a dirty bomb attack will remain a real and serious threat.
Joss is a researcher specialising in Central Asian security studies.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.