Sunday, July 31, 2005

Radiological Terrorism

Here is a very long and interesting read at RedNova regarding Radiological Terrorism. An excerpt:

To construct an RDD, a terrorist group must obtain radioactive materials, use those materials to fabricate a weapon, deliver the weapon to the attack site, and detonate the device. Each of these steps suggests intercessionary measures that can be used to help prevent an attack.

Obtaining radioactive materials requires access to the materials; radioactive sources must be either purchased or stolen. Legal purchase in the United States requires possession of a radioactive materials license, and vendors are not allowed to sell radioactive materials except to properly licensed customers. Terrorist groups could accomplish this via subterfuge (e.g., copying or altering a legitimate radioactive materials license or applying for a license under false pretenses). A terrorist group can also take advantage of existing bulletin boards on which radioactive sources are advertised, often 'free to a good home' by organizations that no longer use them. To transfer a radioactive source legally, it is sufficient to have a copy on-hand of the radioactive materials license of the recipient, which can be supplied by the receiving organization. This leaves open the possibility that a terrorist group could falsify these records to obtain an unwanted radioactive source. To preclude this possibility, regulatory bodies should consider requiring licensing documents be obtained only from a regulatory authority with licensing jurisdiction over the source recipient rather than counting on the integrity of the source recipient.

The most straightforward deterrent to stealing radioactive sources is to increase security via better locking systems, the presence of security guards, alarm systems to indicate a source's theft, and so forth. It is also important to note that radioactive materials licenses are considered public documents and are available for scrutiny by the public. This means that a terrorist organization may be able to obtain copies of licensing documents and use these to identify likely targets for theft. Accordingly, we may wish to remove these documents from public scrutiny.

Radioactive materials obtained overseas must be moved into the United States in order to be used against us. This means that containers with large radioactive sources must either emit high levels of radiation or they must contain large amounts of lead. Developing suitable detection instruments may help address this problem. That being said, current radiation detectors are difficult for untrained personnel to use; it may be necessary to develop a new family of radiation detectors that will help avoid some of the errors that have occurred in the recent past.

Finally, radioactive materials must be transported from the point of entry to the location of fabrication or use. Establishing a network of sensitive radiation sensors around likely target cities can help to detect any but the best-shielded radioactive sources, possibly permitting interdiction prior to use. Aerial surveys may help in this matter, too, depending on the number of available aircraft, detector sensitivity, and the size of the city.

Fabricating an RDD, as noted earlier, can lead to exposure to dangerously high levels of radiation. This, plus the need to avoid detection, may necessitate the use of remote manipulators and/or large amounts of lead shielding. Accordingly, it may be desirable to require lead vendors to report sales of large amounts of lead, remote manipulators, and other such paraphernalia. Although this will not prevent RDD construction, it may at least make it more difficult, more dangerous, or more amenable to detection.

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