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Stolen radioactive material in Iraq raises specter of ISIS dirty bomb attack

FILE - Weapons and explosives confiscated by Iraqi security forces from Islamic State militants are on display at an Iraqi army base. (AP Photo)

Reports that a missing case of radioactive material in Iraq has been located alleviated growing fears that ISIS may have obtained it, but that does not mean the threat of radiological terrorism has subsided.

The revelation by Reuters last week that an industrial radiography device containing up to 10 grams of Ir-192, a radioactive isotope that could be deadly if not handled properly, had been stolen in Basra in November prompted a search throughout the war-ravaged country. The material was eventually found undamaged near a gas station in Zubair, about nine miles away.

While the case of radioactive material was missing, officials and experts expressed concern that it could have fallen into the hands of the Islamic State. The terrorist group has long sought access to weapons of mass destruction and reportedly has used chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria.

If ISIS did obtain a supply of a radioactive source, it might not be difficult to weaponize, but it also would not be able to do much physical damage.

"The real kinetic effect of these weapons is not great," said Michael Desch, professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame. He described dirty bombs as "a nuisance more than anything else."

If such a bomb went off in a crowded area, the destruction would mainly come from the explosion itself. In terms of the radioactive exposure, most people could just evacuate before it affects them.

"It's not going to be something where people can't get away," said Desch, co-director of the Notre Dame International Security Center.

The specific material that was stolen in Basra, Ir-192, would be a poor choice for such a weapon. It is classified as a Category 2 radioactive substance, meaning it would take hours or days of exposure to kill someone. It also has a relatively short half-life of 74 days, so in the three months since it disappeared, it would have weakened significantly.

Miles Pomper, senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, noted that the Ir-192 was in pellet form, which would cause less contamination if dispersed than a powder.

He is particularly concerned about the threat from another radioactive substance that is used in medical treatment, cesium chloride. It is stronger, has a 30-year half-life, and is in powder form.

"It's sort of the ultimate dirty bomb material," Pomper said.

Although such materials may be easy to find, they are not necessarily easy or safe to work with, observed Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association. Handling these materials can cause illness or death for a terrorist trying to build a bomb.

Greg Jones, adjunct senior defense policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, also noted the danger of working with radioactive materials and suggested the potential damage of an attack may not be worth the risk.

"ISIS is far more likely to kill people with bombs and guns than they are with this radioactive stuff," he said.

A radiological terrorist attack might even be more basic than a rudimentary dirty bomb, Pomper said. Just removing a potent radioactive material from its casing and leaving it somewhere strategic could cause illness or death.

"People tend to talk most about dirty bombs, but for this type of material you might be better off leaving it as is in a place that's hidden...and exposing people to it over a long time when they don't know it."

The threat from a dirty bomb goes beyond the physical, though. In the long term, a radioactive explosion could have serious psychological and economic impact.

"It's more of a psychological tactic of panic," Pomper said.

A dirty bomb might cause more problems if detonated in Iraq or Syria, but government agencies in the U.S. have extensive experience with radioactive materials and could manage a clean-up effort efficiently.

"It would be dramatic... but the truth of the matter is the effect would be quite limited," Desch said. It might be expensive to decontaminate the area, but it is not the kind of thing that would leave a city uninhabitable for decades.

"In terms of destructive capacity and radiation released, it is nowhere near the level of a nuclear weapon, but it certainly would have significant psychological impact," Davenport said.

There would also be economic damage in the wake of a dirty bomb attack, both in the cost of clean-up and the temporary loss of use of a large contaminated area.

"Depending on its chemistry, form and location, it could leave billions of dollars in damage due to the costs of evacuation, relocation and cleanup and the inevitable follow-on threats could have severe economic and psychological repercussions." Sam Nunn and Andrew Bieniawski of the Nuclear Threat Initiative wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last year. "Buildings would likely have to be demolished and the debris removed."

Jones and Pomper both pointed to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan in 2011, which was the result of an earthquake, as an extreme example of the damage radioactive contamination can cause.

"The question is, when do you allow people to return to their homes?" Jones asked.

An actual nuclear weapon would obviously be far more dangerous than a conventional dirty bomb, but experts are skeptical that ISIS operatives could get their hands on one.

ISIS would first need to obtain highly-enriched uranium or plutonium, some of which does exist on the black market. There are reports of law enforcement catching smugglers trying to find ISIS agents, but no apparent successful sales.

"The buyers and sellers haven't connected yet," Pomper said. But he added, "Of course, we don't know what we don't know."

"I don't know who in the world would give them enriched uranium... I don't see that as a problem," Desch said. Iran may have the material, for example, but its regime is fighting against ISIS.

Also, ISIS would need the engineering capability to actually build a fission device, and that is likely beyond their knowledge.

According to Desch, the danger of loose nuclear weapons and materials has been reduced significantly since the 1990s, when there was a concerted effort to track down existing devices after the fall of the Soviet Union.

"There's nothing like that that's a threat anywhere ISIS is operating at this point," he said.

While he believes the program to locate elements of the Soviet nuclear infrastructure was very effective, he cannot completely rule out that something may still be out there.

"You can never say never, given the chaos of the post-Soviet regime."

Jones is more worried about ISIS finding leftover stockpiles of sarin gas in Syria, although most of it has been removed.

"I don't see where they'd get a nuclear weapon," he said.

Materials like Ir-192, on the other hand, are unsettlingly easy to find, and apparently to lose.

"This is not unusual for these kinds of sources to go missing," Pomper said. Devices like the one stolen in Basra have been used in oil fields around the world, including in areas that ISIS now controls, and there are no international requirements to report their loss or theft.

"They're not that well tracked," he said.

Radioactive materials also have legitimate industrial, medical, and research uses that make them widespread, even in the U.S.

"The terrorists don't have to go to Iraq to get it," Pomper said.

However, since the most ubiquitous materials require extended exposure to kill, Desch observed, "You can't do that much with them."

"It's just very hard for a terrorist group to operate in North America," he said. The threat from ISIS has largely manifested in lone wolf attacks by individuals who have limited resources.

Davenport said there were more than 40 incidents of radioactive material being reported lost or stolen in 2014.

"Radioactive sources have a wide range of medical and industrial purposes," she said. Security over them can vary widely, even within the same country.

There are some steps that can be taken to better secure radioactive materials both in the U.S. and abroad and decrease the risk of them falling under terrorist control.

"There certainly is a need for a more systemic approach to strengthening security of radioactive sources here in the United States," Davenport said. She recommended security upgrades at many of the 2,300 facilities that handle radioactive material.

A nuclear security summit in late March will bring international political attention to the issue and provide an opportunity to encourage countries to take steps to secure these materials. The International Atomic Energy Agency provides guidelines for storing and disposing them that Davenport said should be followed.

Davenport also suggested working with governments to guarantee they register and track materials, and to put response plans in place for when they are lost or stolen.

Many radioactive sources that are currently used for medical purposes could also be replaced by materials that cannot be used as weapons. Again, Pomper pointed to cesium chloride as an example.

"It's mind-boggling that has not been replaced by x-rays, which can do the same thing," he said.

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