Defending against the detonation of a ‘dirty bomb’

Dr Rico Chandra, CEO of Arktis Radiation Detectors, looks at the requirement for a network of radiation detection systems to counter the growing fear that terrorists could develop a ‘dirty bomb’

The recent Sergey Skripal case in the UK has brought into sharp focus the threat of non-conventional weapons such as CBRN. The effect of a relatively small quantity of a chemical warfare agent, even if used in a limited geographical area, can be destabilising. Now imagine for a moment how magnified those effects would be in the case of another CBRN threat, the detonation of a ‘dirty bomb’ – conventional explosives surrounded in radioactive material. Impacts would be more widespread, both geographically and from the economic and health perspectives. Radioactivity cannot be seen, nor smelled, by a human being but only measured with dedicated tools. A whole district or city would need to be decontaminated. Long-term health effects of the population would be hard to determine.

For a terrorist organisation with even rudimentary IED capabilities, the design and build of the explosive elements of a dirty bomb would be relatively easy. Obtaining radioactive material in sufficient quantities to create a devastating radiological dispersal is a harder challenge, and one which can be enhanced by appropriate regulation and effective law-enforcement.

In early March for instance, British newspapers wrote about an incident where Turkish police seized radioactive material whilst searching a car in Ankara. Stating the suspects were part of a group that had planned to sell the material, they also indicated that the material seized was Californium-252, a rare element only produced in very small quantities, typically in state-owned nuclear research facilities. The public reporting was questionable and was later on put into perspective by the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority (TAEK). Whatever the reality it shows how delicate this issue is.

There is much credible evidence that ISIS, and other terrorist organisations, are seeking to acquire radiological materials. In 2014, ISIS were reported by UN Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim to have control of radioactive sources from Mosul University. The following year, Moldovan Authorities intercepted a smuggler aiming to supply ISIS with a large quantity of radioactive cesium and in 2016, a senior Belgian nuclear official was reportedly monitored by ISIS, who planned to abduct him as part of a plot to obtain radioactive material. Whilst the impetus for terrorism remains and individuals with relevant expertise are at large, it seems highly likely that similar cases will re-emerge soon.

Governments have not been idle in countering the dirty bomb threat. In the UK, the Cyclamen Programme placed radiation monitors at entry points and in the US the Radiation Portal Monitor (RPM) Program fielded some 1,800 systems at both sea ports and land border crossings. Equipment from both procurements is now heading towards the end of its useful life, and programs exist in both countries to replace, upgrade and network replacements. In an effort to provide ‘Defense in Depth’, the US’ National Nuclear Security Administration has been taking similar technology and supplying it to nations which have experienced periods of less rigorous internal regulation of nuclear materials. Their aim is to check outbound cargoes for smuggled material. More broadly, the Global Initiative to Counter Nuclear Terrorism, with an implementation group led by Finland, has 88 countries working together to strengthen nuclear regulatory mechanisms.

Radiological security
However effective perimeter detection, and even port-of-departure screening becomes, it can never wholly counter the threat of radiological terrorism. Not every mile of border or coastline can be scanned and radioactive materials in legitimate transit can be obtained by maritime hijacking, a recent topic of study at Sandia National Labs which examined the hijack threat in the western Indian Ocean.

Similarly, perimeter detection cannot counter the threat arising from loss of control of radioactive materials used in widespread civilian applications. These include medical investigation and treatment, and extensive use in industrial non-destructive testing processes. End of life management of equipment containing radioactive sources needs to be significantly improved in many countries, not just to counter terrorism but to ensure that, even innocently, radioactive contamination does not enter the food chain, water supply or manufactured goods with a proportion of recycled metals. This is predominantly a regulatory issue, but technology has a role to play, for instance in scanning inputs to metals-recycling facilities.

Rapidly evolving technology may offer a step-change in radiological security, and therefore the ability to deter terrorists from building radiological weapons within a nation as well as smuggling in the required materials. A grid of integrated detection systems comprising a network of static and mobile sensors, to protect cities and critical national infrastructure, has long been envisaged. In the past two factors impeded the creation of such a capability on large scales: (a) large networks require sensors which are much more affordable than has been the case until recently and (b) networking technology capable of securely handling large volumes of data from mobile sensors and remote sites has been expensive and largely restricted to the military.

The first of these challenges, building affordable sensors, is being addressed successfully by several providers around the world. I’m proud to say that my own company, Arktis Radiation Detectors is one of them. Strong leadership has been shown by government bodies in several countries, perhaps most notably DARPA in the US. Over the last decade, a 90 per cent reduction in sensor cost with appreciable improvements in performance has been shown to be achievable. The networking challenge, is of course being simplified immensely rapidly by the development of 5G telecoms, by the growth of ‘big data’ applications and infrastructure, and by the growth in understanding of cyber security.

The adoption of sensor networks to defend against radiological threats will depend on government. At the moment, principally national governments, but in future perhaps the leadership of the world’s great cities. Washington DC, working with DARPA and the Department of Homeland Security has already trialled the technology. Perhaps before too long we will see the demand coming from the populations, and then the Mayors of Chicago, or London?

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