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Ready for a nuclear ISIL?

If I were to mention Fukushima, Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, most readers would automatically realise that these cities are unified by a common theme – nuclear accidents. But if I inserted the name Goiânia in there, it would probably lead to a lot of confusion, except among experts – and Brazilians.

But for our latest piece – on whether ISIL could really obtain and use nuclear or radioactive components as weapons – Goiânia could be a more useful example than what happened in the other three.

Goiânia shows how easy and dangerous it is to get hold of radioactive material. When a private radiotherapy clinic moved premises in 1986, its abandoned previous premises were left behind with a teletherapy unit still on site. Over the next year or so, the owners were prevented from removing equipment by court order while legal disputes continued. Instead, the court ordered the site to be secured by a security guard to protect the equipment.

But it appears the guard was not on guard all the time. Because in September 1987, the teletherapy unit was stolen. It was moved from one house to the other, one scrapyard to the other (sometimes in a wheelbarrow) to see if anyone knew what it was or whether it was valuable. It took over two weeks to become clear that the theft had led to radioactive dust and cesium chloride being scattered not just in the city, but the state.

Within a couple of weeks, there had been four fatalities – all people who had been affected during the unit’s transportation.

When the story went public, panic ensued. About 112,000 people were tested for radiation contamination. Crowds tried to prevent the burial of some of the victims, fearing further contamination. Office blocks with traces of contamination had to be destroyed.

In reality, the total cost of this sad episode was four deaths and 249 people contaminated to varying degrees. But the panic effect was much greater.

And this is where terror groups come in. The panic for them is almost the most important element. Advanced nuclear weapons are beyond their reach, but a radioactive ‘incident’ is much more feasible. Goiânia is not an isolated occurrence. The IAEA has seen over 2,000 confirmed cases of illicit trafficking involving nuclear and other radioactive material in the past 18 years.

So if the question is: ‘Could ISIL go nuclear?’ the answer must be ‘possibly’. But it should also be followed by revealing what is our greatest defence – don’t panic.

Paul King

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