It is hard to imagine a more terrifying prospect than an extremist group like ISIS armed with nuclear or radiological weapons. But as the Associated Press revealed this week, that possibility may be much closer than we would like to think.
Over the past five years the FBI, working in conjunction with local authorities in Moldova, have interrupted four attempts made by nuclear smugglers to sell radioactive materials to Middle Eastern extremists, including ISIS. According to the AP, "the latest known case came in February this year, when a smuggler offered a huge cache of deadly cesium -- enough to contaminate several city blocks -- and specifically sought a buyer from the Islamic State group."
ISIS has already shown its willingness to use chemical weapons against civilian targets, so there should be no question that if given the means and opportunity, they would do the same with nuclear or radiological weapons.
As I have written before:
The risks of ISIS getting a nuclear bomb are small. But they are not zero... it is impossible now for ISIS to build a nuclear bomb from scratch. Doing so would require large, industrial facilities to enrich uranium, billions of dollars and gigawatts of energy.
But if they could get the highly-enriched uranium -- about 100 pounds would do, about the size of a soccer ball -- it is possible that they could assemble the equipment and small technical team to build the bomb.
What is far more likely, though, is that ISIS could get its hands on enough radioactive material to produce a dirty bomb.
Some of the government stings reported by the AP involved uranium, which the suppliers said could be used for a dirty bomb. While uranium and plutonium are needed for the core of a nuclear weapon, they are not ideal for a dirty bomb. You want something much more radioactive, like cesium or americium. A few grams of these powders could contaminate tens of square blocks, making them uninhabitable for months, until they were scrubbed clean. Unfortunately, cesium was exactly what smugglers were attempting to sell to ISIS agents in February.
What is a dirty bomb though? Unlike a nuclear weapon, this is not a nuclear explosion but a conventional explosive, like dynamite, laced with small quantities of highly radioactive material.
Few, if any people, would die in a dirty bomb attack. It's a long-term threat. A true terror weapon that would panic a city with the fear that exposure would cause cancer, birth defects or heavy metal poisoning over the years. Think of it as if somebody sprayed asbestos in your apartment building. No one would die and you could go in and out of it, but nobody would for fear of exposing themselves to cancer-causing agents.
It is likely just a matter of time before ISIS -- or some other terrorist group -- gets some radioactive material. We have been lax in clearing out abandoned radioactive material production sites and increasing the security of remaining ones. Between 1993 and 2013 the IAEA reported that there were almost 2500 confirmed incidents of radiological smuggling worldwide. 664 incidents involved the theft or loss of nuclear or radiological materials. 16 involved highly enriched uranium or plutonium. And these are just the ones that we know about.
Ironically, and tragically, the more military success we have against ISIS, the greater the demand may be for theses weapons. ISIS is the first terrorist group that behaves like a state. It has territory to defend, a future to protect. They may want a nuclear bomb for the same reason states do: defense. If our military actions truly threaten them, they will threaten to go nuclear, hoping to deter our attacks. Short of a nuclear explosive bomb, a dirty bomb threat may serve the same function.
So what can be done to prevent this scenario?
As I talked about on Fox News, there are three primary areas that we need to focus on.
First we must revitalize U.S.-Russia cooperation on securing and eliminating nuclear materials. It is more than likely that all of the material seized in the Moldova stings came from Russia. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has been a real concern that poorly secured nuclear materials will fall into the wrong hands. Over the last several decades, billions of dollars have been spent securing those materials, but a recent study by Matthew Bunn and his Harvard colleagues warns:
Weapons-usable nuclear materials still remain 'dangerously vulnerable,' with security systems that do not provide effective protection against the full spectrum of plausible adversary threats.
Major gaps remain in the security of Russia's nuclear arsenal and its huge stockpiles of bomb material. Unfortunately, Russia's withdrawal from key aspects of nuclear cooperation programs in recent years is now an even greater cause for concern. We must work with the Russians to get them back on board with the existing Cooperative Threat Reduction programs.
Second, we must reduce as much as possible our own use of dangerous nuclear and radiological materials. As Senator Sam Nunn recently wrote in The Washington Post,
Although securing the materials is crucial, a better option exists for some isotopes that would result in permanent threat reduction. Thanks to recent technological advances, it is no longer necessary to use one of the most dangerous materials, cesium-137, in medical and scientific equipment.
We need to strengthen the regulatory framework for the security of radiological sources. As noted in a 2012 Government Accountability Office report, security requirements put forth by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) are too broadly written.
The NRC should provide medical facilities with specific steps they must take to develop and sustain a more effective security program.
These are straightforward and common sense solutions to a serious potential threat and should be implemented as quickly as possible.
Finally we must work to develop and implement rigorous, consistent standards for the nations that do use these materials. Again as Sen. Nunn has said,
The international community should do more. Last year, 23 countries at the Nuclear Security Summit agreed to secure their most dangerous radioactive materials. Other countries should join this pledge.
Next year's summit offers governments a valuable opportunity to announce their fulfilled commitments and launch a major new initiative to replace all... dangerous radiological sources where alternatives exist.
Even more importantly though, the U.S. needs to rethink our overall nuclear strategy. Our current strategy is still based on fighting a nuclear war with Russia. We should refocus it, and stop spending billions on an obsolete U.S. nuclear arsenal and move at least part of those funds to preventing ISIS or any other group from getting their hands on radioactive materials. It's time to stop fighting Soviets and shift our funds to fighting the terrorists that truly threaten us.
The risk of ISIS getting their hands on nuclear or radiological weapons is small, but it is not zero. And that is too big of a gamble to take when American lives are on the line.