I was reminded of this quite recently when I went to the cinema to see the film San Andreas. While the plot of the film barely passes muster the special effects are awesome and I found myself really believing that San Francisco was being destroyed by an earthquake. It’s one of those films that when you come out of the cinema you are surprised to see that the world is just as it was when you went in. That is “the suspension of disbelief”.
However, just because you suspend your disbelief that something is happening it shouldn’t mean that you shouldn’t believe that something can happen. Seismologists are in general agreement that the San Andreas fault is going to be the cause of a major earthquake. Some even think that the event is long overdue. Similarly the possibility of a nuclear weapon being used by terrorists is very real.
A nuclear weapon falling into the hands of terrorists is an unlikely event. These things are well guarded and it would, I suspect, require the act of a rogue government to allow such an event to happen. While there are rogue governments in existence, North Korea springs to mind, they generally fear the repercussions of any act they perpetrate and so they are cowed into good behaviour, at least outside their own borders. So the idea of such a government giving away a nuclear weapon isn’t impossible, but it is quite improbable. However, there is an event that is far more probable.
That event is the construction of what is called a “dirty bomb”. Readers who have served in the armed forces may be familiar with this term, but for the benefit of those who haven’t served I’ll explain the concept.
A terrorist bomb is designed to kill or maim. It uses blast and shrapnel to kill its victims. Its killing efficiency is down to three variables: The power of the explosion, the amount of shrapnel that is packed around it and the location in which it is placed. The more powerful the bomb the larger the area over which it will be effective; the more shrapnel that is used the more there is to spread about and the more crowded the location the more casualties that are caused.
Military or commercial explosives are difficult to get hold of so terrorists tend to make use of homemade explosives which pack less power. Therefore to make their bombs more deadly they pack them with more shrapnel and explode them in crowded spaces. The London underground was a near perfect location for the 7/7 bombings. It has been alleged that many roadside bombs planted in Afghanistan were packed with biologically contaminated shrapnel (faeces, soiled bandages etc) so they would continue to cause problems with infections long after the initial wounds healed.
There is one particular way in which the power of a bomb can be increased so that it kills not a few people, or even a hundred people, but a thousand, even tens of thousands of people and that is the “dirty bomb”.
The dirty bomb is made in the conventional manner but is packed not with scrap metal to provide shrapnel or old bandages to cause infections, but with nuclear waste to cause radiation poisoning. This waste could be anything from the rags used to clean up spilt liquids through to the filings and swarf from the manufacture of nuclear fuel rods for a nuclear reactor right through to the spent fuel rods themselves. Whatever it is, if a tiny amount of it gets into the human body it will cause radiation poisoning. Tons of radioactive waste is created by the nuclear industry each year. It can’t be disposed of in any conventional way, so it has to be stored in special facilities.
It must be remembered that the majority of the casualties from the explosion of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear weapons didn’t come from the blast, they came from the radiation poisoning.
To understand what a terrible death radiation poisoning is you only have to look at one of its recent victims Alexander_Litvinenko The dose of polonium administered to him was probably no larger than a pin head.
In a dirty bomb the explosion smashes apart the waste and throws it around. Anything that it lands on becomes contaminated and if even a small amount is inhaled or ingested by a person they too become contaminated. The smallest particles, some as small as molecules, will be carried upwards by the heat of the blast to drift on the wind until they fall back to earth, possibly miles from the explosion. This is how the radiation can be spread to kill tens of thousands of people.
One of the scary things about a dirty bomb is that it doesn’t produce the traditional mushroom cloud that is associated with an atomic bomb (unlike the graphic I’ve used to illustrate this blog), so no one would actually realise that they are involved with a dirty bomb and could become contaminated until it was too late. Emergency services personnel, by-standers, the media et al would risk becoming contaminated when they rush to the scene of the explosion.
Of course you can’t find nuclear waste just lying around anywhere. It is strictly controlled, but it has to be stored somewhere or disposed of in places where people can’t get their hands on it. Any country in the world that has a nuclear programme also has nuclear waste. Not all of those countries are well disposed towards the West.
When I say that countries have this waste what I really mean is that people have the waste, because it is looked after by people. Not all those people are well disposed towards the West, either. People have ideals. People are adherents to a religion or to a political doctrine or, as with the supporters of Islamist terror, both. People are also corruptible.
All it needs for some of that nuclear waste to “disappear” is for someone with ideals, or who has been bribed, or even both, to decide to steal it. In James Bond films the loss of something as deadly as this stuff is usually portrayed as being caused by private armies breaking in and shooting anyone that gets in the way. In reality it is more likely to be done by someone who works at the installation stuffing it into a plastic bin bag (metaphorically speaking) and walking out with it. I’m not saying it would be easy, but I am saying it could be done.
Once the waste is outside its storage facility the hard part has been done. It isn’t too difficult a task to get it into the hands of the people who would want to use it to build a bomb. It is possible that this has already happened. After all, what country is going to admit that it has lost such sensitive material?
The next question is, would someone be insane enough to do such a thing as build a dirty bomb? After all, a dirty bomb is indiscriminate. It will kill friends as well as enemies. That is true of any bomb, of course, but terrorists can reduce the risk to their friends by choosing their target with care. That isn’t the case with a dirty bomb because terrorists can’t control the wind.
A few years ago I would have said that it was unlikely that a dirty bomb would ever be exploded. I would have found it difficult to comprehend that an Islamist terrorist, for example, would deliberately do something that would kill Muslims. I no longer believe that.
It wasn’t something that overly concerned the 7/7 bombers when they blew themselves up on the London Underground and on board a London bus. There are plenty of Muslims who both travel and work on the London Underground. It also didn’t concern the 9/11 attackers when they flew their aircraft into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. After all, Muslims worked in the Twin Towers along with non-Muslims and I’m sure there must be Muslims who work in the Pentagon.
The reason I no longer believe that Islamist terrorists are no longer concerned about killing Muslims is the fact that more Muslims have been killed by Islamist fighters in Syria and Iraq than have been killed by western armies and air forces since 1991. These people have found a way to justify to themselves the taking of the lives of other Muslims, despite the Qu’ran prohibiting such an act. There are a number of verses in both the Qu’ran and the Hadith (non-ratified sayings of The Prophet) that provide a loophole for such an act and you can read some of them here.
People who are inspired by the fighters if ISIS (or ISIL, or Daesh, choose your own name) will have the same lack of concern for the killing of Muslims. This means that it only requires two things for a dirty bomb to be built and exploded: the nuclear waste and someone insane enough to build it. As Stalin is reputed to have said (actually it may have been someone else) “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”. If the terrorist can get into that sort of mind set, just as Stalin did, anything becomes possible.
For me the question is not “if” a dirty bomb will ever be exploded, it is a matter of “when” it will happen.
Well, you may think, we don’t have to worry too much. They couldn’t get the nuclear waste into Britain. I’m afraid they could. They would get it in the same way they get Colombian cocaine and Afghan heroin into the country and it’s even how fake perfume, poisonous vodka and pirate DVDs get here. The smuggling routes are already well established and the people who operate them aren’t too fussy about where the money comes from. They don’t ask what’s in the box, they only ask how much they’re going to be paid to smuggle it into Britain.
This whole idea is what underpins the plot of my latest book, The Warriors: Mirror Man. I won’t spoil your enjoyment by revealing any more of the plot than that but, as Nick Ross used to say at the end of Crimewatch: don’t have nightmares.
To find out more about The Warriors: Mirror Man click on the “Books” tab at the top of this page or click on this link: http://robertcubitt.com/index.html