A Credible Radioactive Threat to the Sochi Olympics?

With the Sochi Olympics set to start on February 6th there has been an escalating concern about security threats to the Games. There are hunts for female suicide bombers (“black widows”), video threats from militant groups, etc., all of which have triggered a massive Russian security response, including statements by President Putin insuring the safety of the Games.

Many of the security concerns are raised by the proximity of Sochi  to Chechnya and relate to the threats expressed by Chechen leader Doku Umarov who exhorted Islamic militants to disrupt the Olympics.

In the past weeks the region has seen Islamic militants claims that they carried out two recent suicide bombings in Volgorad which tragically killed 34 people and injured scores of others. Volgograd is about 425 miles from Sochi and although the media stresses the proximity it is a considerable distance.

If increased realistic fears of suicide conventional bombing at Sochi were not enough, the Chechen connection is troubling when considering whether any of these groups might attempt to use radioactive materials to disrupt the Olympics. Chechens have been responsible for some of the earliest uses of radioactive material, starting from the placement of a small cesium 137 source in a Moscow park in the mid-1990s  and there have been repeated threats and reports of Chechen groups intent to use radioactive material in a Radioactive Dispersal Device (RDD), particularly the threat to use explosives to carry out the dispersal, creating a “Dirty Bomb.”

Since various sorts of radioactive material has been out of control in Chechnya since the Soviet Union collapsed it is certainly possible that militant groups might possess small amounts of radioactive material. Obviously explosives are readily available. Would any of these groups use radioactive material against the Olympics if they possessed it?  Unfortunately the answer may be that they would. Not only is it an extremely visible target, but Russian President Putin has made his personal prestige an issue, which may be viewed as too tempting a challenge for some of these groups to forego.

Therefore it seems that there is a credible threat that radioactive material might be used to disrupt the Games. Would Russian security efforts be effective in detecting and stopping such a threat? The answer is unclear, but it is certainly probable. Although the protection of major events against radioactive materials threats is not often discussed in the media, it has been an aspect of protection of Olympics and other events for over 25 years. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) publishes Nuclear Security Systems and Measures for Major Public Events, No. 18 in its Nuclear Security Series which provides guidelines for states in the various aspects of protecting major events. The IAEA also provides equipment and assistance to states hosting such events. The Russian Federation may or may not have availed itself of IAEA assistance, but is certainly aware via its IAEA participation of the methods, equipment, and procedures to employ to create a protective nuclear security system.

Assuming the Russian Federation has a world class nuclear security system to protect the Sochi Games from the threat of a Dirty Bomb or other type of RDD, any system may fail, particularly when it is challenged by attackers with suicidal intentions. If a Dirty Bomb were to go off in Sochi at or near one of the venues what would be the result?  From the point of view of a scientist the consequences would be very manageable and not too severe. Probably a number of fatalities due to any explosives that were used, and probably no near term fatalities from the radiation dose received by those exposed to the radioactive material since exposures would be expected to be relatively low. There would certainly be a cleanup and decontamination problem.

However, the way a scientist would look at the problem is not at all the way the public would react. Public and media reaction would be immense and might lead to panic, perhaps even leading to fatalities and injuries from panic induced reactions. Certainly the Games would suffer a major disruption, if they were not totally cancelled.

Hopefully Russian planners have considered how to provide an adequate response that would enable them to deal with an actual event and minimize public panic. In addition, they need to have planned for, and pre-positioned equipment that would enable them to deal with rumors and hoaxes that might be attempted by groups intent on disruption of the Games. The Russian system will need to be capable of dealing with reports of radioactive material presence or use that would need to be rapidly confirmed or debunked.

RDDs are often referred to as Weapons of Mass Disruption rather than Mass Destruction by experts. Although there is a potential threat to the Sochi Olympics, the addition of radioactive material to the conventional threats to the Games must be understood not to add very much in actual threat of harm to people in Sochi. Russian efforts to counter any threat need to focus not only on preventing any use of an RDD, but also need to focus on how to deal with the public should an RDD be used or threatened to be used.


Dr. George M. Moore is the Scientist-in-Residence and  an Adjunct Professor at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. From 2007-2012, Dr. Moore was a Senior Analyst in the Office of Nuclear Security at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Austria. At IAEA, he worked with the Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) and served as Scientific Secretary for the Director General’s Advisory Group on Nuclear Security (AdSec). He also served as Scientific Secretary for the development of the Agency’s Fundamentals of Nuclear Security document, the top-level document in the Agency’s Nuclear Security Series that will be published in fall 2012. He is a former Fulbright Scholar (Netherlands) and a former Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) Special Fellow. He is a licensed Professional Engineer (Nuclear) in California and was formerly an AEC-licensed research reactor operator. He is admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court and in a number of Federal Circuit and District Courts across the United States. After graduation from Annapolis, Dr. Moore served as a naval officer until he resigned from the Navy as a lieutenant commander. He then worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in various assignments in areas relating to nuclear physics, nuclear effects, and radiation detection and measurement. He left LLNL and served as an in-house counsel at Northern California’s utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric, until he entered private practice with the San Francisco firm of Kenney & Markowitz where he specialized in litigation in the areas of aviation, recreational boating, product liability, intellectual property, and commercial law. Dr. Moore left Kenney & Markowitz in 2002 to return to LLNL where he worked in the Nuclear Assessment (NAP) program. He left LLNL in mid-2007 to join the IAEA.

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