Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Countdown to the next big strike in America--Part 3

Weapons of Mass Destruction—Dirty Bombs

by William Webb

A dirty bomb is made from a conventional, high explosive core surrounded by a container packed with radioactive material such as Cesium-137, Cobalt 60, or Americium. The resulting explosion would not be a nuclear reaction, but would spread radioactive debris over a wide area. It is almost certain that terrorists will use a dirty bomb in future strikes.

While even the U.S Nuclear Regulatory Commission seems to downplay the consequences of a dirty bomb stating on its web site, “A dirty bomb is in no way similar to a nuclear weapon. The presumed purpose of its use would be therefore not as a Weapon of Mass Destruction but rather as a Weapon of Mass Disruption,” the consequences could be very disruptive indeed.

Al-Qaida operations chief Abu Zubaydah has claimed to interrogators that not only did the terrorist group know how to build a dirty bomb but the group may have already positioned one within the United States.

While the deaths caused by a dirty bomb would vary according to the type and quantity of radioactive waste used, the economic consequences of the clean-up or evacuation of the contaminated area could be astronomical. Dr. Steven Koonin of the California Institute of Technology told a CBS news reporter that a strong enough cloud spread over a mile would make the area completely uninhabitable.

Dr. Henry Kelly of the Federation of American Scientists assessed dirty bomb scenarios in both Manhattan and Washington, D.C. stating that a bomb set off in lower Manhattan would spread more than 300 blocks up to Central Park. Depending on the radiation used, demolition might be necessary. Kelly estimates the damages to be more than $2 trillion. In the Washington scenario, “A likely target might be somewhere along Pennsylvania Avenue, with the White House at one end and the Capitol at the other. For maximum impact, experts say, the bomb would be placed in the middle. A bomb set off at the corner of 10th Street and Pennsylvania could contaminate the FBI headquarters, the Justice Department, and possibly the Commerce and Treasury Departments—depending on the weather that day.

The FBI has already thwarted one dirty bomb plot within the United States since 9/11. Jose Padilla, aka Abdullah al Muhajir, an American citizen, Latino gang member, and convert to Islam, sits in a brig in Charleston, South Carolina charged with conspiring to launch a “dirty bomb” attack within the U.S. According to an Associated Press report quoting a memo from Michael Mobbs of the DOJ, Padilla “approached senior Al-Qaida lieutenant Abu Zubaydah with a proposal to conduct terrorist attacks within the United States. “Zubaydah, who is now in the custody of the U.S. military, directed Padilla to travel to Pakistan for training in wiring explosives from Al-Qaida operatives. There, Padilla researched how to construct a dirty bomb. Mobbs writes in the memo that Padilla met with Al-Qaida officials twice. In 2002, he and Al-Qaida officials discussed the possibility of blowing up gas stations or hotels in a series of coordinated attacks on the United States,” the memo states.

While neither as dramatic or destructive as a true nuclear explosion, the dirty bomb poses a greater probability of being used simply due to ease of construction and the availability of nuclear waste. An excellent PBS NOVA special aired in February 2002 featured Dr. Abel Gonzalez, head of Radiation Security at the International Atomic Energy Agency based in Austria, who told of when his group was called to investigate the radiation poisoning of two Georgian woodcutters in December 2001.

Upon investigation, Dr. Gonzalez found the men had slept beside two warm, metal canisters. According to PBS, “Radiation detectors indicated that the cylinders contained concentrated strontium-90, which emits beta radiation. Beta radiation is a spray of fast-moving electrons that can pass through thin layers of material, including skin. When beta particles interact with matter, they generate an intense heat. Strontium-90 metal has been known to spontaneously ignite.

“The metal cylinders were hot enough to melt snow. And small wonder, because each one contained a substantial percentage of all the strontium spewed out across Europe during the Chernobyl accident.” Upon further investigation, Dr. Gonzalez found that the Russians had built thousands of nuclear generators that could power lighthouse and navigational aids for airplanes and ships. The radiothermal generators, or RTGs, fueled by pure strontium-90 whose 800-degree heat was used to generate the electricity, are strewn over the entire country.

The sobering truth to this one reported incident is that there are literally millions of unprotected sources of radioactive material in the world today. Charles Ferguson of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies estimates there are more than 2 million radioactive sources in the United States of which 200,000 actually present a “high security risk.”

Captured documents in Afghanistan and interrogations of Al-Qaida prisoners seem to reaffirm the creation of a dirty bomb as a very high priority. A Sunday Times of London article by Adam Nathan and David Leppard tells of a meeting between Bulgarian businessman Ivan Ivanov and bin Laden in April of 2001 to discuss setting up an environmental company to buy nuclear waste. A Pakistani chemical engineer who wanted to buy nuclear fuel rods from the Kozlodui reactor in Bulgaria also approached Ivanov.

In June 2002, United Press International reported that the Russia Federal Security Service thwarted an Al-Qaida attempt to acquire 11 lbs of radioactive thallium from devices used on decommissioned Russian submarines.

While certainly not as catastrophic as a nuclear blast, the probability of a dirty bomb used against innocent civilians in a Western city is almost a certainty.

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