Radiological Dispersal Devices: Assessing the Transnational Threat

By Ford, James L. | Strategic Forum, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Radiological Dispersal Devices: Assessing the Transnational Threat


Ford, James L., Strategic Forum


Conclusions

* The Defense Science Board Summer Study report recognizes a "new and ominous trend--a transnational threat with a proclivity towards much greater levels of violence." The report states that transnational groups have both access to, as well as the motivation to use, weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Military and civil defense planners are increasingly concerned about possible state and non-state use of radiological dispersal devices (RDD) against U.S. forces and population centers abroad and at home.

* Practically any state or non-state actor can build and detonate RDDs as technological barriers have fallen and radiological materials have become more plentiful. However, weapons design experts contend that the physical threat from these RDDs may be overstated.

* The psychological and political effects of RDD use are not well understood and are potentially more significant than the lethality effects of such use.

* While RDDs may not be well suited as "military weapons" in the classic sense, the use of RDDs could be powerfully coercive and could trigger enormous political reactions within host countries or among allies in a coalition. These reactions could produce major strategic consequences for the military campaign.

* With protective and decontamination equipment, and training, U.S. forces should be able to withstand the physical effects of most RDDs. At home, U.S. civil defense planners--including first responders being trained under the Nunn-Lugar-Dominici initiative--must also be prepared to deal with the RDD threat.

Radiological Dispersal Devices Defined

The Department of Defense (DOD) defines an RDD as, "any device, including any weapon or equipment, other than a nuclear explosive device, specifically designed to employ radioactive material by disseminating it to cause destruction, damage, or injury by means of the radiation produced by the decay of such material." Almost any radioactive material can be used to construct an RDD, including fission products, spent fuel from nuclear reactors, and relatively low-level materials, such as medical, industrial and research waste. Weapons grade materials (i.e., highly enriched uranium or plutonium) are not needed although they could be used.

An RDD is designed to scatter radioactive debris over a wide area, thereby contaminating it and possibly causing casualties through radiation sickness, as well as denying its use to military forces or others for some period of time. According to a recent DOD report, the RDD threat is threefold: the blast and fragmentation effects from the conventional explosive, the radiation exposure from the radioactive material used, and the fear and panic that its use would spread among the target group or population. This paper examines this threat and differentiates the physical from the psychological--and therefore political--impact on a targeted population.

Background

The possibility of employing radioactive materials as a weapon was first considered during World War II. In 1941, the National Academy of Sciences proposed radiological warfare as a military application of atomic energy. In its report, the Academy's first option was the "production of violently radioactive materials ... carried by airplanes to be scattered as bombs over enemy territory." After British physicists demonstrated the technical feasibility of nuclear explosive weapons, attention quickly turned to their development throughout the remainder of the war. In 1946, the United States conducted the Operation Crossroads nuclear weapons tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The widespread contamination of ships used in these tests gave dramatic evidence of the potential of so-called radiological warfare. In 1947, the Defense Department began creating panels of experts to study the offensive and defensive aspects of what it termed "Rad War." This led to an active test program, including releases of radiation into the atmosphere in the 1940s and 1950s. …

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