Commentary Magazine


The Coming Dirty-Bomb Attack

I had some x-rays taken by my dentist yesterday and I glanced nervously at the triangular radiation-caution marking on the device. For the Defense Science Board, a government-run panel composed of military and industry experts, has just issued a report that there are more than 1,000 irradiation machines used in hospitals and research laboratories across the United States that could be used by terrorists as a source of radioactive materials to construct a dirty bomb. “Any one of these 1,000-plus sources could shut down 25 square kilometers, anywhere in the United States, for 40-plus years,” the Washington Post quoted from the report yesterday. (Dental x-ray machines do not present a similar problem.)

The Defense Science Board is recommending that the hospital and laboratory radiation devices, typically left unguarded, either be secured or replaced with irradiators that use other less lethal materials. That is an excellent (if costly) idea and an urgent matter. But what about the thousands of such devices that are not in the United States? Is anyone worrying about them?

One country—or set of countries—of particular concern is Russia and the rest of the former USSR. The intelligence community’s primary concern with Russia has been the possibility that some of its nuclear weapons will come loose and fall or be sold into terrorist hands. While that danger remains a theoretical possibility, another, more realistic menace has been with us already for a long time.

Way back in 1990, in “Rad Storm Rising,” an article I wrote for the Atlantic (which at my request has courteously posted it on the web for all to read for free), I took note of lax practices regarding nuclear materials and nuclear waste across the still extant USSR. In the Siberian city of Novosibirk alone, a radiation map prepared by the authorities indicated 84 separate “radiation anomalies.” Fourteen of these had been caused by radioactive ampules from scientific and industrial instrumentation that should have been interred at a radioactive-waste disposal site but, according to the Soviet press, “were mindlessly and recklessly thrown out into streets and yards.”

“Even allowing for the Russian penchant for hyperbole,” I observed, “the latest revelations in the ever more candid Soviet press make clear that Soviet problems in the area of nuclear pollution and safety continue to be extraordinarily severe.”

A decade and a half has elapsed since then. The public-health implications of such carelessness are no longer our primary worry. Terrorism is. Even if the United States can do little about radioactive ampules in faraway lands, the Russian authorities, at least as far as protecting their own territory is concerned, can and must.

Dirty bombs are the most likely approach to an al Qaeda follow-on attack to 9/11. And if terrorists are now actively plotting a dirty bomb attack, my bet is that Moscow, the capital of a land where radioactive materials have been treated with appalling recklessness, is a far more vulnerable target than Washington or New York.