Last month, during routine scanning of cargo at the Heathrow Airport, the British police came across a “very small quantity of uranium “package. The undeclared material was discovered on a passenger flight on December 29, 2022. The Indian news agencies and Daily Mail Online reported “it was destined for an Iranian business with premises in the UK (David Barret, Home Affairs Editor for the Daily Mail and Brittany Chain for Mail Online, Published January 10, 2023). Being “not of weapon grade” the uranium was incapable of being used for improvising a “dirty bomb” (a radiation dispersal device). However, some news agencies and uncanny experts tried to whip up “dirty bomb” scare out of the incident. Hamish De Bretton-Gordon, former commander of the UK’s nuclear defence regiment lent credence to the unfounded scare. He said: ‘Uranium can give off very high levels of poisonous radiation. It could be used in a dirty bomb. Indian news agencies and the Daily Mail Online, in their reports, magnified “a very small quantity” into “several kilograms” of uranium. It was claimed that the package “originated” in Pakistan though it was headed for an Iranian business in Britain.
British Police Commander, Richard Smith clarified: ‘I want to reassure the public that the amount of contaminated material was extremely small and has been assessed by experts as posing no threat to the public. ‘Although our investigation remains ongoing, from our inquiries so far, it does not appear to be linked to any direct threat.
‘As the public would expect, however, we will continue to follow up on all available lines of enquiry to ensure this is definitely the case.
‘However, it does highlight the excellent capability we and our partners have in place to monitor our ports and borders in order to keep the public safe from any potential threats to their safety and security that might be coming into the UK.’ ‘The material has been identified as being contaminated with uranium.’
It is unfortunate that India in cahoots with some foreign media is always in the forefront to exploit such incidents and portray Pakistan as a nuclear rogue. For instance, Time magazine, in its article ‘Merchant of Menace’, reported some uranium hexa-flouride cylinders were missing from the Kahuta Research Laboratories (February 15, 2005). Pakistan’ information minister and foreign-office spokesman both refuted the allegation. The information minister told Geo TV channel, “We have checked all the records and no cylinder is missing from the KRL”. Masood Khan (foreign office) told reporters, “The story is a rehash of several past stories”. May read N-Terror Threat the News International, August 27, 2009
India’s own record is dismal. Let us reminisce a few incidents It is not understood why loss of radioactive material from Indian labs is always out of the magazine’s focus _ According to international media reports (February 25, 2004),
India itself reported 25 cases of “missing” or “stolen” radio-active material from its labs to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Fifty-two per cent of the cases were attributed to “theft” and 48% to “missing mystery”. India claimed to have recovered lost material in twelve of total 25 cases. She however admitted that 13 remaining cases remained mysterious.
Pot calling kettle black:India’s radio-active bazaar
India has a sprawling civil and military nuclear programme that spreads over several states. In an article in The Diplomat, Sitara Noor highlighted shortcomings in safety and security of India’s nuclear facilities (India’s radio-active bazaar: Recurring incidents involving theft and sale of nuclear materials demonstrate why India must develop an independent nuclear regulatory body.)
<thediplomat.com/2022/03/India’s radio-active bazaar> [Accessed 14 January 2023].
She says: ‘While global markets are taking a dip due to economic recession, India’s illicit uranium market seems to be flourishing. In February, eight people including two Indian officials were apprehended in Nepal for illegally possessing and attempting to sell“uranium like substance”. The material was reportedly smuggled from India. This was not just one-off incident _ theft and sale of nuclear and radioactive material in India is a recurring phenomenon. Earlier in May 2021, reports of the seizure of 7 kilograms of highly radio-active uranium worth 210 million Indian rupees from a scrap dealer raised serious concern about India’s nuclear security capabilities. Over the past two decades over 200 kilograms of nuclear and radio-active materials has reportedly disappeared from Indian facilities. Frequent incidents of loss and theft of nuclear and radio-active materials in India indicate the failure of the nuclear security systems at multiple levels. First there seems to be a gap in the material accounting and control systems to ensure that not even an iota of material is left unaccounted. Second, the nature of incidents in India hints at the involvement of insiders_ someone working at the nuclear facilities or mining sites working independently or colluding with an outsider. This indicates the serious risk of insider threat and a failure of the personnel reliability program. Third, the recurrence of nuclear security lapses with such impunity indicates serious issues with nuclear security culture in India…’
Is Dirty bomb a hoax?
Opinion about the effects of a dirty bomb is divided.
A report by Henry Stimson Center, Washington (followed by several other reports) laments “…Nuclear and radiological terrorism remains a frightening possibility in India and Pakistan, and the source material for nuclear terrorism could come from illicit transactions of poorly protected materials originating outside the region, as well as material from within the region used for military or civilian purposes”.
This report was provided to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee to facilitate the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program on nuclear proliferation in South Asia.
The report concludes that “although India and Pakistan have established regulatory bodies to deal with the safety and security of their nuclear materials,’ these may not be sufficient to protect against every potential threat”.
Another report, authored by Kishore Kuchibhotla, Ph.D (Biophysics) from Harvard, and Matthew McKinzie, a nuclear physicist serving as a staff scientist with USA’s Nuclear Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, argues that “…three other types of events could prompt unintended escalation in South Asia: a terrorist use of RDDs (radiological dispersal devices); a terrorist detonation of a nuclear weapon; and the accidental explosion of nuclear arms — for example at military bases in either India or Pakistan… The report points out that while nuclear weapons themselves are closely guarded, all sorts of radioactive material could be found in research laboratories and hospitals that could provide the basic materials for the making of a dirty bomb…. Nearly 10,000 radioactive sources are used throughout India of which about 400 are particularly worrisome…” The report predicts that “…dirty bomb detonation in Karachi, New Delhi, Mumbai and Islamabad” could result in “casualties that at the very minimum would number in the tens of thousands”. It is eerie to note that The Time (Pentagon) correspondent Mark Thompson asserts in his article what is a ‘Dirty Bomb, “It’s unlikely to kill 10,000 people”.)
It appears that the concern about the “dirty bombs” is overblown. History of terrorism reflects that “terrorists” are interested in symbolic targets (which could yield widespread publicity), not in mass killing (vide Verindre Grover’s Encyclopaedia of International Terrorism).
A “dirty bomb” is not known to have been tested by any country or detonated by any “terrorist” anywhere in the world. So, its composition and scope of its destructive power is shrouded in mystery. However, it is generally believed to “consist of a bomb made of conventional explosives such as TNT, salted with radioactive material”.
Contrary to the “dirty bombs”, fall-out of the tested A-bombs is well recorded. The major powers declared moratoriums on nuclear-bombs testing only in 1992. The pre-1992-period test scoreboard of the USA, former Soviet Union, France, and Britain is an explosion every 18 days, 21 days, 61 days, and 331 days (R Venkataraman Nuclear Explosion and its Aftermath).
It is much easier and cheaper to make a chemical or biological bomb than a “dirty bomb” (It is believed that the chemical bombs used by Saddam’s Iraq against Iran were made with Indian know-how). Though a “dirty bomb” has never been used by any “terrorist”, a bio/chemical bomb was actually used by Japan’s former doomsday-cult Guru Shoko Asahara. The Guru stands sentenced to death “for masterminding the deadly 1995 nerve/chemical gas (sarin) attack on the Tokyo subway and a string of other crimes that killed 27 people”.
The cult’s quest for biological weapons was overshadowed by its chemical attack capability. The cult members were trying to develop botulinum toxin by utilising toxin of green Mamba snake and poisonous mushroom spores,
Regarding use of chemical/biological weapons by “terrorists”, Professor Ramesh Chandra points out in his Global Terrorism (volume 1, page 27), “The US government indicates that these weapons are well within the reach of terrorists. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, ‘Terrorist interest in chemical and biological weapons is not surprising, given the relative ease with which some of these weapons can be produced in simple laboratories… Although popular fiction and national attention have focused on terrorist use of nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons are more likely choices for such groups’”.
Not only sarin, but also several other chemical agents like mustard, tabun, soman and VX are capable of dual use as pesticides and as a chemical weapon. Chandra (op. cit., page 30) points out, “chemical warfare agents ‘can quite literally be manufactured in a kitchen or basement in quantities sufficient for mass-casualty attacks”. Experts agree that it is more difficult to manufacture Sarin gas, used by the “terrorists” in Japan, than mustard, tabun, soman, et al. To some experts, an effective bio-terrorism facility could be built at $ 200,000 to 2 million.
Biological weapons, too, are easier to manufacture than “dirty bombs”. Viruses could cause smallpox, Venezuelan equine encephalitis and hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola. The threat of biological weapons is obvious from the fact that: (1) The charges for anthrax, Q fever (Coxiella burnetti) and Venezuelian equine encephalomyeletus cultures from a leading US culture collection are about $ 45, $ 80, and $81 respectively. Besides, nature abounds with microscopic killers. Bacillus anthracis resides in hides and carcasses of wild or domesticated animals and plagues in prairie dogs, chipmunks, black rats, deer mouse and coyotes. Chandra (op cit) states that “The cost estimates for a bio-terrorism facility vary quite widely from $ 200,000 to $ 2 million…Instructions for how to mass produce, purify, and concentrate microbes can be found in textbooks and scientific journals”.
The Heathrow nuclear material is now seen as ‘deadly’ but the UK-based media agency reported that the uranium was ‘not weapons-grade’ – and so could not be used to manufacture a thermo-nuclear weapon, as per sources.
It appears that disproportionate emphasis on mythical “dirty bombs” vis-à-vis chemical / bio- bombs is meant to press and exploit non-major or nuclear-threshold states. “Dirty” or clean bomb attacks by “terrorists” need to be understood and explained within the broader frame of “terrorism”.
The US authorities have recorded over 175 cases worldwide of nuclear materials (not bombs) being smuggled out of former Soviet Union territories and other countries. The Federation of American Scientists, nevertheless, admits that “radiological attacks could result in some deaths but not hundreds of thousands of casualties that could be caused by a crude nuclear weapon” .
The US scientist concluded, “Significant quantities of radioactive material have been lost or stolen from US facilities during the past few years. Radiological materials are stored in thousands of facilities around the US, many of which may not be adequately protected against theft by determined terrorists’ ‘. Materials like Iridium-192, Cobalt 60 (Gamma emitter), Cesium-137 (Gamma emitter), Americium (Alpha emitter) and even plutonium could still be stolen from over 21,000 laboratories, food irradiation plants, oil drilling facilities and medical centres in the USA. But, it is not an easy job to make an effective “dirty bomb”.
It appears that “dirty bomb” is a hoax to exploit nouveau-nuclear or nuclear-threshold nations. It could be a weapon of mass disruption, but not a weapon of mass destruction. Real threat emanates from chemical or bio-weapons.