Something new to worry about: Dirty bombs

Not long ago, I took an online course in “lab safety” in anticipation of joining the faculty of Tufts University. Although I am not teaching in the hard sciences, I was intrigued by the course title — although dubious that I would ever encounter chemical or radioactive waste in my job.

Then I read a warning last week from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) about the risks we all face from the increasing danger posed by radioactive materials, especially if a terrorist gets hold of them. So, add this to your worry list: “dirty bombs.”

A dirty bomb is essentially a conventional bomb mixed with radioactive materials of the variety found in medical or industrial facilities. According to the GAO, “the risks of a dirty bomb attack are increasing, and the consequences could be devastating.” 

Radioactive materials do important work in cancer treatment, food inspections, x-ray technology and laboratory research, and they help scientists develop new treatments and drugs. From hospitals to meat plants, from nuclear energy facilities to airport security, we rely on these materials for critical uses. 

But in the wrong hands, radioactive materials can increase the damage inflicted by a terrorist.  

How likely is that?

First, it should be said that the worst-case scenario of a terrorist getting hold of and using radioactive materials in the United States has not played out. Which is not to say it has not been raised publicly and privately by officials. Concerns over the consequences of a dirty bomb attack have been written about many times, including in these pages in 2011 after the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan.

And the July 14 GAO report is not the first warning from the agency. The GAO began reporting on dirty bombs in 2019, saying that their use could trigger mass evacuations, with socioeconomic costs of billions of dollars.

In fact, part of the impetus for the study was an accidental release of Cesium 137, a radioactive substance, in 2019 at the University of Washington Research and Training Building. It ended up costing millions of dollars to clean up from that one accident.

So, is there anything alarming happening right now that gives the current GAO report new significance? There is. Today’s American climate of political extremism has fueled new concerns that a domestic terrorist could resort to new tricks to garner attention and intimidate people on a larger scale. It is not unreasonable to think that a terrorist, particularly an insider, might try to mix explosives with radioactive powder or pellets and set off an explosion that carries radioactive dust into surrounding areas. 

Getting access to radioactive materials is difficult, but not impossible if someone inside a military or industrial facility wants to.

Fortunately, the United States has multiple agencies overseeing this threat and strict procedures for obtaining a license to use radioactive materials. The Nuclear Regulatory Commissions (NRC) regulates domestic, medical, industrial and research uses of sealed radioactive sources, and we have a robust Department of Energy with a National Nuclear Security Administration within it.

But, says the GAO, we should not rest on our laurels. According to the report, there are vulnerabilities in the U.S. system in terms of weaknesses in licensing, for example, which “make it relatively easy for bad actors to obtain small quantities of high-risk radioactive materials…”

But there are ways to avoid the unthinkable. The GAO report says that it may be time to consider greater reliance on alternatives to radioactive materials and that Congress should take up the matter. 

Preparedness is also key. Some cities, fearing a terrorist incident using radioactive materials, are training to respond. Exercises were conducted last year in Austin, Texas, that simulated responses to a radiological incident. “The Cobalt Magnet 22” exercise involved 30 local, state and federal agencies. 

The Department of Energy is also taking radiological security seriously, and the National Nuclear Security Administration recently launched a major initiative, “Radsecure 100,” which focuses on removing radioactive material, where feasible, and improving security at facilities in 100 metropolitan areas throughout the U.S. And it is partnering with local law enforcement.

Ultimately, there is a limit to how many dangers people can worry about. But government officials are paid to worry for us and to take steps necessary to ensure our safety and security. And for that, we ought to be grateful.

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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