Since the 9/11 attacks most discussions about potential terrorist attacks in the United States have been focused, in large part, against jihadist extremists. As I have pointed out on a number of occasions, Al Qaeda and its affiliates and allies, are not the only potential threat; we have a large number of home-grown wackos of various political stripes that also must be considered as potential threats. Last week the unauthorized release of FBI information (page 11) on a white-supremacist that had components for building a dirty bomb (in this case an IED contaminated with depleted uranium 238 and thorium 232) emphasized another terrorist threat.
Dirty Bombs and Lone Wolves
Two things of interest are highlighted in this story. First is the apparent ease with which one could acquire components for a dirty bomb. The information provided did not indicate that the components would have provided much of a radiological threat due to the small volume radioactive isotopes. Dirty bombs do not have to pose a significant radiological hazard to be effective terrorist weapons. The mere existence of a radioactive component would increase public fear associated with the attack and would complicate the emergency response to such an attack.
The second item of interest is that the discovery of these dirty bomb components was the result of a criminal investigation of the shooting death of the potential terrorist by his wife because of spousal abuse. It does not appear that the individual had shown up in any Federal investigation of white supremacist organizations or potential terrorists. This is another example of the ‘lone wolf’ terrorist that is so hard to detect prior to their attack.
Threat Against Chemical Facilities
There is nothing in any of the available articles or FBI documents that indicates that the potential target of this particular wacko was a high-risk chemical facility. That is not to say that white supremacists would not target such facilities. An argument could be made that an attack on a chemical facility in a minority neighborhood could be an indirect attack on people of color. Additionally, facilities closely associated, or identified, with targets of white supremacists, which include racial and religious minorities as well as the Federal government, may be targets of such organizations and individuals.
Dirty bombs may be a particularly useful in attacks against a chemical facility with large volumes of flammable release chemicals rather than toxic release chemicals. The dispersal of radioactive material in the smoke plume of a large chemical fire would expand the scope of the attack. The relative hazard would be small, but the psychological effects could be profound, especially if accompanied by a propaganda campaign by associated groups proclaiming that the government was covering up the radiological hazard.
Prevention and Response
There is nothing that a high-risk chemical facility could really do to protect it against itself against a dirty bomb. The typical defenses against IEDs and VBIEDs would be appropriate defenses against dirty bombs in this case. Unless someone developed particular intelligence of a dirty-bomb attack against a specific facility, the deployment of radiological sensors for detection of a dirty bomb would not be cost effective.
More important would be planning for emergency response for a dirty bomb. Radiological decontamination over a large area would expensive and time consuming. A realistic approach would not be to try to decontaminate all ‘radioactive’ contamination, but to identify and clean up such areas that present a realistic threat of harm to civilians living and operating in the area. More importantly, an immediate and effective education campaign must be initiated to explain the real and relative threat from low-level radioactive contamination.
This particular case points up the fact that there needs to be a realistic discussion of the potential risks from radioactive dirty-bombs. While high-risk chemical facilities will not take substantial actions to prevent dirty-bomb attacks, the response community needs to take a hard look at the fact that the smoke plume would increase the area of concern from such an attack.
I spent 15 years in the US Army as an Infantry NCO. After getting out of the Army I started working in the chemical industry, getting my BSc Chemistry degree while working as a technician. I spent 12 years working as a process chemist in a specialty chemical company. I'm now working as a QA Manager in a specialty chemical manufacturing facility.