Cleaning House: Dirty Bombs and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (World in Review)

By Litman, Leah | Harvard International Review, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Cleaning House: Dirty Bombs and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (World in Review)


Litman, Leah, Harvard International Review


On June 10, 2002, USA Attorney General John Ashcroft announced the arrest of Abdullah al Muhajir, a US citizen who allegedly was planning a radiological weapon, or "dirty bomb," attack against the United States in collaboration with Al Qaeda. This announcement aroused fear in many US citizens, who were confronted with the possibility of a post-September 11 onslaught of terrorist activities. Coincidentally, Ashcroft's statement came in the midst of the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD), which was convened to address ongoing threats of nuclear proliferation, including proliferation by non-state actors. The announcement of the arrest initiated a new debate in the CD on how to control the development and deployment of radiological weapons. A starting point for the CD discussions is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which prohibits the development of the radioactive materials used in radiological weapons. However, the NPT has proven insufficient in regulating fissile material and is not an adeq uate framework for preventing the acquisition and use of a radiological weapon because it lacks the specific technical and political provisions necessary to prevent the development of such weapons.

A Dirty History

There are several important differences between a strategic nuclear weapon and what has become known as a "dirty bomb." A "dirty bomb," or radiological weapon, does not have to be assembled from fissile-grade material (plutonium or uranium) and does not require activation energy in order for fission to occur. A radiological weapon also requires only radioactive decay rather than a complete fission reaction. Dispersed by conventional explosive devices, such as dynamite, detonation of a radiological dispersal device (RDD) would not be accompanied by the large amounts of heat and energy associated with a nuclear explosion.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies identifies radioactive elements used in hospitals, nuclear power fuel rods, and scientific research laboratories, and weapons grade fissile material as potential components of dirty bombs. Once the RDD is detonated, the radioisotopes decay, contaminating the environment with radioactive fallout. The long-term effects of a radioactive weapon result from the fallout itself. Chronic exposure to the resulting atomic radiation causes tissue damage and cancer. There is also speculation that the fallout would contaminate water and food sources in nearby areas. The short-term effects are not as well known, but ingestion or inhalation of radioactive material is known to cause radiation sickness, accompanied by tissue damage and other complications.

Even though there are many potential sources of radioactive material, there is no recorded instance of a radiological device being used as a weapon. However, there are many cases similar to the arrest of al Muhajir in which a plot to use a radiological weapon has been foiled. In the mid-1990s, Chechen rebels placed cesium in a Moscow park. Luckily, Russian security forces seized the materials before the weapon was detonated.

There have also been several incidents involving the accidental dispersal of radioactive material. In 1997, soldiers on border patrol in Georgia came across abandoned cesium-137 and cobalt-60 isotopes and became ill with radiation-induced skin disease. The most severe accident occurred in 1987 in Goiania, Brazil. Scavengers happened upon an abandoned cancer clinic and dismantled a metal capsule containing cesium-137, exposing hundreds of people to the radioactive material.

The Brazilian Nuclear Energy Commission diagnosed over 240 people, four of whom later died, with some form of radiation sickness. Although the international community has been confronted with situations involving the near or accidental release of radioactive materials, there were no such incidents in the United States until the arrest of al Muhajir, which renewed the focus on radiological weapons.

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