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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.

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Radioactive Theft in Mexico: What a Thief Doesn’t Know Can Kill Him

While the theft of a truck carrying radioactive cobalt made international headlines, this was unfortunately not the first time thieves or scavengers have exposed themselves or others to lethal radiation. Probably the most infamous case was on September 13, 1987 in Goiania, Brazil. Scavengers broke into an abandoned medical clinic and stole a disused teletherapy machine. These machines are used to treat cancer by irradiating tumors with gamma radiation typically emitted by either cobalt-60 or cesium-137. In the Goiania case, the gamma-emitting radioisotope was cesium-137 in the chemical form of cesium chloride, which is a salt-like substance. When the scavengers broke open the protective seal of the radioactive source, they saw a blue glowing powder: cesium chloride. This material did not require a “dirty bomb” to disperse it. Because of the easily dispersible salt-like nature of the substance, it spread throughout blocks of the city and contaminated about 250 people. Four people died form radiation sickness by ingesting just milligrams of the substance.

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Radiological Ray Gun: More Buck Rogers Fantasy than Risk to Real People

The June 18th arrest of two men for allegedly plotting to build a bizarre yet potentially deadly radiological device once again highlights the potential nexus of non-state actors with so-called weapons of mass destruction (WMD). However, much like this year’s troika of ricin-laced letters addressed to government facilities (including one to the CIA) and public officials (all three incidents targeted President Obama at his White House address), this most recent plot reveals the historical rarity and non-lethality of non-state actors and their behaviors with radiological weapons and agents. While the potential for catastrophe posed by terrorist use of chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) weapons deserves ongoing and serious attention, recent events remind us how public apprehension is sometimes founded more in fear than reality; indeed, reactions based on fear are capable of far more disruption than the physical reality of the event itself.  The role of science-based organizations such as the Federation of American Scientists is to educate the public about the real risks.

The methodologies and data sets used in this article, augmented by several others of each, will be discussed in a two day professional education summer course, “Terrorism Analysis: Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methodologies and Tools” held at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA on July 25-26, 2013. This non-credit course introduces participants to state-of-the art analytical techniques, research methods, and cutting-edge databases used by the industry for the study of terrorism. Course participants gain a detailed understanding of single and multi-methodological techniques, learning how to develop analytical tools applicable to the needs of those responsible for preventing, preparing, responding to, or predicting terrorism. Highlights include how to use these research techniques to identify previous and emerging trends in terrorist activities and to cogently assess the potential role of WMD in terrorism. Register now for the “early bird” discount – 25 percent less than the listed fee. For more information and to register, please visit the course page.

Of the CBRN threats, the nuclear threat is undoubtedly truly catastrophic because a nuclear weapon can cause massive destruction, but obtaining a nuclear weapon or the fissile material to make such a weapon is very hard to do. In comparison, radiological sources are far more common, but most of them would cause little or no harm to human health if dispersed by a radiological weapon because there is not enough radioactive material contained in the vast majority of each of these sources. And even those radiological sources containing highly radioactive materials would pose great difficulties for terrorists to use because they would hazard exposing themselves to lethal ionizing radiation. These latter issues, and others outlined below, are very relevant to the recent radiological plot.

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