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The dirty bomb: low cost, high risk

Is the biggest nuclear threat actually not nuclear weapons but rather a terrorist dirty bomb - the explosion of nuclear materials? Many think so. Here we outline what the dangers are and how the consequences would affect us.

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One of the big fears in nuclear circles

is the threat of terrorists

making and detonating a dirty bomb,

an explosive with nuclear materials.

Countries in Africa, in South-America,

they are more concerned

about dirty bombs

rather than explosion devices.

Terrorists have demonstrated

their ability to plan

and execute complex

international operations.

They have had access in the past

to big funds and other resources.

And they are able to recruit

scientists and other specialists.

Here we shouldn’t be thinking

in terms of any weapon

of huge sophistication.

A fairly crude, improvised nuclear

device would certainly be sufficient

for terrorists’ hell-raising purposes.

And it is within their capabilities.

What was decided at the security

summit was about keeping

nuclear weapons and materials

away from terrorists.

A nuclear weapon falling

into their hands is unlikely.

The level of expertise,

the technology, the knowhow,

is very difficult to come by.

Terrorists won't get hold

of that any time soon.

But nuclear materials

is another matter.

In that case

they could create is a dirty bomb

and detonate those materials,

probably in a major city.

So what effect would that

have on a city like Washington?

We have two major effects.

As a result of the explosion,

there may be hundreds

of people irradiated.

Certainly it’s not comparable

to an explosion of a nuclear device.

But as a result,

vast territory may not be inhabitable

and there will be

a requirement for decontamination.

But on top of that,

because of what we call radiophobia,

people not understanding the effects

of even low doses of radiation,

there will be panic.

For example, products

manufactured throughout this region,

will not be marketable,

not only in this country, but globally.

How widely available

are these materials?

And where would

a terrorist group have to look?

A dirty bomb is a result of multiple

sources, it can be spent nuclear fuel.

As a result of what

we call nuclear renaissance,

over forty countries are now

trying to jump the bandwagon

of developing their own

national infrastructure.

And as a result, we have piles

of spent fuel in many new countries

and those new countries

have no skills or technologies

to deal with them in a safe way.

They could try to steal...

They could steal enriched uranium.

We see some

smuggling and trafficking.

You can steal

at hospitals or other places...

Cesium and other stuff.

It exists in many places.

The risk is not zero, no.

And this is no fantasy. Accidental

releases have already happened,

showing how loose

some restrictions are.

What happened

over twenty years ago in Brasilia,

in a city called Goiânia.

You know, it was just a source that

was abandoned in an old hospital.

And metal scavengers

just disassembled it.

And the citizens of the city had no

idea what it was, this white powder.

So it was spread around

the city for two, three days

before the medical personnel realised

what kind of danger it posed.

It may happen anywhere.

Ironically, some candidate byers

of nuclear materials

have often turned out to be

victims themselves of scams.

The scams, they were more earlier,

when in Russia

the communist control lost

and the police were not so effective.

There were lots of crooks who

would sell red mercury for instance,

a substance that didn’t exist.

They said: We can get more.

Or they sold a few grams

of plutonium and said:

This is a sample.

10,000 dollars and come back later.

They never saw them again.

Even if terrorists did get hold

of these materials,

making a reliable bomb is not

guaranteed, but not impossible either.

This is not the kind of weapon

that a military would want.

It’s not going

to have a predictable yield.

It may not be very safe to employ.

It may even not be

miniaturizable in a fashion

that it can be delivered

on the tip of a missile.

But one would have to worry

that it might actually go off

and produce some significant yield.

One of the big fears in nuclear circles

is the threat of terrorists

making and detonating a dirty bomb,

an explosive with nuclear materials.

Countries in Africa, in South-America,

they are more concerned

about dirty bombs

rather than explosion devices.

Terrorists have demonstrated

their ability to plan

and execute complex

international operations.

They have had access in the past

to big funds and other resources.

And they are able to recruit

scientists and other specialists.

Here we shouldn’t be thinking

in terms of any weapon

of huge sophistication.

A fairly crude, improvised nuclear

device would certainly be sufficient

for terrorists’ hell-raising purposes.

And it is within their capabilities.

What was decided at the security

summit was about keeping

nuclear weapons and materials

away from terrorists.

A nuclear weapon falling

into their hands is unlikely.

The level of expertise,

the technology, the knowhow,

is very difficult to come by.

Terrorists won't get hold

of that any time soon.

But nuclear materials

is another matter.

In that case

they could create is a dirty bomb

and detonate those materials,

probably in a major city.

So what effect would that

have on a city like Washington?

We have two major effects.

As a result of the explosion,

there may be hundreds

of people irradiated.

Certainly it’s not comparable

to an explosion of a nuclear device.

But as a result,

vast territory may not be inhabitable

and there will be

a requirement for decontamination.

But on top of that,

because of what we call radiophobia,

people not understanding the effects

of even low doses of radiation,

there will be panic.

For example, products

manufactured throughout this region,

will not be marketable,

not only in this country, but globally.

How widely available

are these materials?

And where would

a terrorist group have to look?

A dirty bomb is a result of multiple

sources, it can be spent nuclear fuel.

As a result of what

we call nuclear renaissance,

over forty countries are now

trying to jump the bandwagon

of developing their own

national infrastructure.

And as a result, we have piles

of spent fuel in many new countries

and those new countries

have no skills or technologies

to deal with them in a safe way.

They could try to steal...

They could steal enriched uranium.

We see some

smuggling and trafficking.

You can steal

at hospitals or other places...

Cesium and other stuff.

It exists in many places.

The risk is not zero, no.

And this is no fantasy. Accidental

releases have already happened,

showing how loose

some restrictions are.

What happened

over twenty years ago in Brasilia,

in a city called Goiânia.

You know, it was just a source that

was abandoned in an old hospital.

And metal scavengers

just disassembled it.

And the citizens of the city had no

idea what it was, this white powder.

So it was spread around

the city for two, three days

before the medical personnel realised

what kind of danger it posed.

It may happen anywhere.

Ironically, some candidate byers

of nuclear materials

have often turned out to be

victims themselves of scams.

The scams, they were more earlier,

when in Russia

the communist control lost

and the police were not so effective.

There were lots of crooks who

would sell red mercury for instance,

a substance that didn’t exist.

They said: We can get more.

Or they sold a few grams

of plutonium and said:

This is a sample.

10,000 dollars and come back later.

They never saw them again.

Even if terrorists did get hold

of these materials,

making a reliable bomb is not

guaranteed, but not impossible either.

This is not the kind of weapon

that a military would want.

It’s not going

to have a predictable yield.

It may not be very safe to employ.

It may even not be

miniaturizable in a fashion

that it can be delivered

on the tip of a missile.

But one would have to worry

that it might actually go off

and produce some significant yield.

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