Defusing the Threat of Radiological Weapons

Among the unconventional weapons that a terrorist could use to attack the United States, a radiological weapon, or “dirty bomb,” is the most likely. The materials needed to build a bomb are relatively common and the required technical skills are minor, compared to other unconventional weapons. Perhaps most critically, evidence found in Afghanistan demonstrates terrorists’ intent to build a radiological weapon.

Reasonably sophisticated terrorists have a number of options for acquiring the necessary materials. They could procure the materials from one of thousands of locations in the United States. They could also acquire materials from overseas and smuggle them into the United States. A successful attack could sever the arteries of our global economy, render entire city blocks virtually uninhabitable for decades, and cause widespread panic=

Despite the clear threat, the Bush administration has not given the issue high enough priority. Major gaps remain in efforts to control devices that house radiological materials, known as “radiological sources.” There is no domestic mechanism for reliably tracking the location and condition of all radiological sources, and the situation is often worse in other countries. Efforts to identify and intercept illicit shipments need better coordination and more resources. The United States lacks the capacity to effectively respond to an attack.

The United States must develop and implement a layered, risk-based strategy to defend against the threat posed by radiological weapons. The strategy must:

  • Secure the entire life-cycle of new and existing radioactive sources by acting to strengthen licensing requirements; develop a mechanism to track down and catalogue all sources; and refine incentives for safely and securely disposing of unwanted sources.
  • Develop more effective measures to detect and intercept illicit shipments of materials from overseas by improving radiation detection technology.
  • Implement an emergency response plan that includes measures to facilitate continuity of economic operations; a medical surge capacity for treating radiation wounds; and a plan for educating the public about radiation and radiological weapons.

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