Tag Archives: dirty bomb

Nuclear Terrorism: How to Crash a Drone into a Nuclear Plant

Greenpeace crashed a drone into the spent-fuel cooling building at the EDF-Bugey nuclear power plant site on July 3, 2018 to demonstrate gaps in the facility’s security. Officials  were lucky it was just Greenpeace demonstrating vulnerabilities at the facility, and not a terrorist group intent on attacking the site. This incident highlights why the 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review’s assessment that nuclear terrorism is “today’s most immediate and extreme danger” remains relevant: It underscores the importance of the sustained and persistent six-year effort from 2010 to 2016 to reduce the threat posed by nuclear terrorism, far from the headline nuclear issues of Iran, North Korea, and arms control with Russia…

The Nuclear Security Summits, initiated by President Barack Obama in 2009 and concluded in April 2016, significantly strengthened the global nuclear security architecture and brought high-level political attention to the risk posed by nuclear terrorism. ..According to a new report from the Arms Control Association and the Fissile Materials Working Group, The Nuclear Security Summits: And Overview of State Actions to Curb Nuclear Terrorism 2010-2016, countries made more than 935 distinct commitments to strengthen and improve nuclear security throughout the six-year process.

As a result, three entire geographic regions—South America, Southeast Asia, and Central and Eastern Europe—have entirely eliminated highly-enriched uranium from their soil, and only 22 countries possess weapons-usable nuclear material, down from more than 50.

Excerpts from Sara Z. Kutchesfahani, Kelsey Davenpor, Why countries still must prioritize action to curb nuclear terrorism, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Aug. 3, 2018

Mishandling Nuclear Materials: who is to blame

Plutonium in can.

Plutonium capable of being used in a nuclear weapon, conventional explosives, and highly toxic chemicals have been improperly packaged or shipped by nuclear weapons contractors at least 25 times from 2012 to 2107 according to government documents.While the materials were not ultimately lost, the documents reveal repeated instances in which hazardous substances vital to making nuclear bombs and their components were mislabeled before shipment. That means those transporting and receiving them were not warned of the safety risks and did not take required precautions to protect themselves or the public, the reports say.

The risks were discovered after regulators conducted inspections during transit, when the packages were opened at their destinations, during scientific analysis after the items were removed from packaging, or – in the worst cases – after releases of radioactive contaminants by unwary recipients, the Center for Public Integrity’s investigation showed.  Only a few, slight penalties appear to have been imposed for these mistakes.

In the most recent such instance, Los Alamos National Laboratory – a privately-run, government-owned nuclear weapons lab in New Mexico – admitted five weeks ago that in June 2017  it had improperly shipped unstable, radioactive plutonium in three containers to two other government-owned labs via FedEx cargo planes, instead of complying with federal regulations that required using trucks to limit the risk of an accident… According to the initial explanation Los Alamos filed with the government on June 23, 2017 the lab used air transport because one of the other labs – located in Livermore, California ― needed the plutonium urgently.

The incident – which came to light after a series of revelations by the Center for Public Integrity about other safety lapses at Los Alamos ― drew swift condemnation by officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington, D.C., which oversees U.S. nuclear weapons work. It provoked the Energy Department to order a three-week halt to all shipments in and out of Los Alamos, the largest of the nuclear weapons labs and a linchpin in the complex of privately-run facilities that sustains America’s nuclear arsenal.

In total, 11 of the 25 known shipping mistakes since July 2012 involved shipments that either originated at Los Alamos or passed through the lab. Thirteen of the 25 incidents involved plutonium, highly-enriched uranium (another nuclear explosive), or other radioactive materials. Some of the mislabeled shipments went to toxic waste dumps and breached regulatory limits on what the dumps were allowed to accept, according to the reports.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which arguably has more experience with the handling and transport of radioactive materials than any other government entity, has no jurisdiction over nuclear weapons-related work by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) or its contractors. Instead, the Energy Department (of which the NNSA is a semi-autonomous part) regulates all the sites on its own, as well as the contractors that manage them.

Excerpts from Patrick Malone, Nuclear weapons contractors repeatedly violate shipping rules for dangerous materials, Center for Public Integrity, Aug. 1, 2017

See also the Nuclear Weapons Establishment, Los Alamos to WIPP: the full story of nuclear waste mismanagement

Beating the Dirty Bomb

dirty bomb

A DARPA program aimed at preventing attacks involving radiological “dirty bombs” and other nuclear threats has successfully developed and demonstrated a network of smartphone-sized mobile devices that can detect the tiniest traces of radioactive materials. Combined with larger detectors along major roadways, bridges, other fixed infrastructure, and in vehicles, the new networked devices promise significantly enhanced awareness of radiation sources and greater advance warning of possible threats.

The demonstration of efficacy earlier this year was part of DARPA’s SIGMA program, launched in 2014 with the goal of creating a cost-effective, continuous radiation-monitoring network able to cover a large city or region. The demonstration was conducted at one of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s major transportation hubs where DARPA tested more than 100 networked SIGMA sensors…

The pocket-sized radiation “pager” sensors developed by DARPA and used in the exercise can be easily worn on a person’s belt, are one-tenth the cost of conventional sensors, and are up to 10 times faster in detecting gamma and neutron radiation. Moreover, the program achieved its price goal of 10,000 pocket-sized detectors for $400 per unit….A large-scale test deployment of more than 1,000 detectors is being planned for Washington, D.C., later this year.

Excerpt from Ushering in a New Generation of Low-Cost, Networked, Nuclear-Radiation Detectors, OUTREACH@DARPA.MIL, Aug. 23, 2016

Germans to Decontaminate Ukraine, Nuclear Waste

image from http://www.dmt-group.com/en/services/engineering/nuclear-waste-disposal.html

A consortium of four German companies has been awarded a contract to improve infrastructure for managing radioactive waste, the rehabilitation of contaminated areas and the decommissioning of nuclear power plants in Ukraine.  The consortium – comprising Brenk Systemplanung, DMT, Plejades and TÜV Nord EnSys – was awarded the contract for the project, which is within the framework of the European Union-funded Instrument for Nuclear Safety Cooperation (INSC). The INSC is designed to support non-EU countries in improving nuclear safety. The contract will run for an initial two-year period and have a maximum budget of €1.5 million ($1.6 million).

According to the tender notice, the main objectives of the contract are to support the Ukrainian State Corporation ‘Radon’ in establishing an emergency response system for “radiation incidents involving unauthorized radioactive materials that are not related to nuclear power plant operation”. It also calls for the establishment of integrated, automated monitoring systems for radiation and environmental protection at Radon facilities, as well as the remediation of radioactive waste storage sites resulting from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident and situated outside the exclusion zone.

In a statement yesterday, DMT said it will jointly lead with TÜV Nord EnSys Hannover the assessment of some 50 radioactive waste storage sites.

Excerpts from German consortium awarded Ukrainian waste contract, World Nuclear News, Mar. 2, 2016

Nuclear Materials in Iraq and 2014 Civil War

university of mosul. image from http://www.uomosul.edu.iq/en/

The U.N. atomic agency said on Thursday (July 10, 2014) it believed nuclear material which Iraq said had fallen into the hands of insurgents was “low grade” and did not pose a significant security risk.  Iraq told the United Nations that the material was used for scientific research at a university in the northern town of Mosul and appealed for help to “stave off the threat of their use by terrorists in Iraq or abroad”.

Iraq’s U.N. envoy this week also said that the government had lost control of a former chemical weapons facility to “armed terrorist groups” and was unable to fulfill its international obligations to destroy toxins kept there.  An al Qaeda offshoot, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, took over swathes of Syria and Iraq before renaming itself Islamic State in June and declaring its leader caliph – a title held by successors of the Prophet Mohammad.

The U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “is aware of the notification from Iraq and is in contact to seek further details”, IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said.  “On the basis of the initial information we believe the material involved is low grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk,” she said. “Nevertheless, any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive materials is a cause for concern.”

Iraqi U.N. Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a July 8 letter that nearly 40 kg (88 pounds) of uranium compounds were kept at the university.  “Terrorist groups have seized control of nuclear material at the sites that came out of the control of the state,” he said.

However, a U.S. government source said it was not believed to be enriched uranium and therefore would be difficult to use to manufacture into a nuclear weapon. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the reported seizure likely posed no direct threat. But, he said: “The sheer fact that the terrorists … show unmistakeable interest in nuclear and chemical materials is, of course, very alarming”.

Any loss or theft of highly enriched uranium, plutonium or other types of radioactive material is potentially serious as militants could try to use them to make a crude nuclear device or a “dirty bomb”, experts say.  Olli Heinonen, a former IAEA chief inspector, said that if the material came from a university it could be laboratory chemicals or radiation shielding, consisting of natural or depleted uranium.  “You cannot make a nuclear explosive from this amount, but all uranium compounds are poisonous,” Heinonen told Reuters. “This material is also not ‘good’ enough for a dirty bomb.”  In a so-called “dirty bomb”, radioactive material such as might be found in a hospital or factory is combined with conventional explosives that disperse the hazardous radiation.

Citing U.N. investigations dating back ten years or more, Heinonen said there should be no enriched uranium in Mosul. The Vienna-based IAEA helped dismantle Iraq’s clandestine nuclear programme in the 1990s – during Heinonen’s three decades there.  “Iraq should not have any nuclear installation left which uses nuclear material in these quantities,” he said.  Another proliferation expert, Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment think-tank, said: “The Mosul region and several university departments were scoured again and again by U.N. inspectors for a decade after the first Gulf War (1990-1991) and they know what materials were stored there.”  “These included tons of uranium liquid wastes, sources, uranium oxides, and uranium tetrafluoride. Some of these items are still there, but there’s no enriched uranium,” he said.

Excerpts from Fredrik Dahl, UPDATE 4-Seized nuclear material in Iraq “low grade” – UN agency, Reuters, July 10, 2014

Trapping the Dirty Bomb: 2013 state-of-the-art

Passport NetS2 SmartShield.  Image from Passport Systems Inc.

Nuclear and radiological materials slipped out of regulatory control 2,331 times between 1995 and the start of this year, according to the Incident and Trafficking Database compiled by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The materials are widely used in industry, agriculture and medicine. They are kept in many poorly guarded X-ray and cancer-treatment clinics. Such places are often not overseen with terrorism in mind. They have even been bought by crooks as front operations, says Rajiv Nayan, of India’s Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Raids on abandoned uranium mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo are more frequent, according to that country’s General Atomic-Energy Commission. The problem is most acute in the former Soviet Union: in Ukraine alone, roughly 2,500 organisations use radiological materials.

In Georgia a counter-trafficking unit set up by the interior ministry seven years ago has arrested two or three teams smuggling radiological material every year save 2009. The lure of profits is so strong that some ex-cons get back into the business, says Archil Pavlenishvili, leader of the unit. Interpol has said such trafficking is growing: an acute “real threat to global security”.  It all sounds scary enough. But the reality has been less so. Moreover, by many accounts the most plausible dangers appear to be declining.

For a start, an “overwhelming” number of buyers turn out to be undercover cops, says Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think-tank. A sizeable network of informers helps Georgia’s interior ministry to keep a close eye on the four or five cells in the country currently trying to obtain or sell radiological material, says Mr Pavlenishvili. ..Beyond this, intelligence agencies are hunting down traffickers with help from special “link analysis” computer programs. Also known as “network analysis” software, this crunches data from numerous sources to identify people whose travel, purchases, web searches, communications, schooling and so forth may spell trouble—perhaps an employee in radiation therapy who begins frequenting an inconveniently located bar whose owner receives phone calls from a drug-runner with growing operations.

Half a dozen Western governments “pay huge amounts of attention” to this, says an executive at a developer of the software. At least one spy agency in America, Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and an unnamed European country pays more than $1m a month to use it. The counter-trafficking units in both Georgia and Romania note that link-analysis software made by i2, owned by the giant IBM computer company, has helped to nab traffickers. Atsuko Nishigaki, the unit’s boss, says Japan’s economy ministry employs ten analysts to use a competitor’s software to identify traffickers in nuclear or radiological material.

America’s National Nuclear Security Administration has sponsored the installation of radiation-detection kit at ports in 23 countries and counting. The Megaports Initiative, as it is called, aims to have half of the world’s maritime container cargo routinely scanned by 2015. Networked systems are also being developed with detectors small enough to be worn on a police officer’s belt. The idea is to relay data on potentially dangerous radiation through a mobile-phone network to a central computer. Knowing each device’s location and the strength of the radiation it detects, the computer can “triangulate” the source’s approximate location.

Difficult problems remain. False alarms triggered by anything from a pallet of cat litter to radiation-therapy patients and nuclear-power-plant shipments have slowed research and development on one such network at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, says Simon Labov, a co-ordinator there. Even so, the lab’s work continues to be financed by America’s defence, energy and homeland-security departments. In October 2013 the latter’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office asked for proposals for a similar system, dubbed Human Portable Tripwire. Other outfits that have developed technology for such schemes include Smiths Detection in Britain and, in America, Berkeley Nucleonics, General Electric, GENTAG, Passport Systems and Purdue University.

The sheer danger of making a dirty bomb is a factor too. Without the right equipment and expertise, the really nasty stuff can kill the maker of a bomb before it is ready—part of the reason, perhaps, that no spectacular dirty-bomb attack has yet been launched. F

Dirty Bombs: Glowing in the dark, Economist, Dec. 14, 2013, at 67

Dirty Bomb Defused: the 2013 theft of nuclear materials

mexico nuclear theft

Authorities on December 5, 2013 recovered dangerous radioactive material from a cancer-treating medical device that was on a stolen truck and abandoned in a field, the interior ministry said.  It was in a capsule of two centimeters in diameter and authorities are now trying to isolate it safely before taking it to its original destination at a waste storage facility, the ministry said in a statement.The radioactive cobalt-60 source, which is considered “extremely dangerous” by the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was originally inside a device that was in a steel-reinforced box in the truck.

The material was found in the town of Hueypoxtla about one kilometer (0.6 miles) from the truck, which the driver said was stolen by two gunmen at a service station on Monday.  The theft raised concerns about health risks while experts warned that the quantity of cobalt-60 — 60 grams — was enough to build a crude “dirty bomb,” though it was possible the thieves were only after the truck.

The United States said its national security team had monitored the situation “very closely” and that President Barack Obama was briefed throughout the day on December 4, 2013  as the search was on for the missing material.  “We also took appropriate precautionary steps along our shared border with Mexico,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.  The National Commission for Nuclear Safety and Safeguards (CNSNS) said a family found the open medical device and brought it inside their home.  “We will have to keep this family under medical watch for the sole reason of being near a certain distance from the source,” CNSNS operations director Mardonio Jimenez told Milenio television, without specifying how many members were in the family.

Authorities have warned that whoever removed the radioactive material by hand was probably contaminated and could soon die. Authorities were still looking for the thieves.They said it is not clear if they are the ones who opened the box.  But Jimenez sought to reassure residents in the 40,000-population town of Hueypoxtla.  “The source is far from the population,” he said. “There is a security operation to keep them from getting near it.”

The official blamed the transport company for the incident, saying it had acted with “negligence” by not having a security escort with the truck. The device was driven from a hospital in the northwestern city of Tijuana.  The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency also said the Mexican public “is safe and will remain safe.”  The IAEA said it had been informed by the CNSNS that the cobalt-60 was found to have been removed from its shielding “but there is no indication that it has been damaged or broken up and no sign of contamination to the area.”

The UN agency said that if not securely protected, the 60 grams of material “would be likely to cause permanent injury to a person who handled it or who was otherwise in contact with it for more than a few minutes.”  “It would probably be fatal to be close to this amount of unshielded radioactive material for a period in the range of a few minutes to an hour,” it said.  The IAEA added, however, that people exposed to the radioactive substance “do not represent a contamination risk to others.”  The incident was a reminder of the dangers posed by the huge amounts of nuclear material in hospitals and industry around the world if they are not handled properly and with sufficient security.  In particular, there are fears that extremists could steal the material and put it in a so-called dirty bomb — an explosive device spreading radioactivity over a wide area and sparking mass panic.

Mexico recovers radioactive waste that was on stolen truck, Agence France Presse, Dec. 6, 2013