Six young eager bandits and an unprotected truck full of precious material driving through the long and barren Mexican highways. It sounds like the perfect job; so ideal it seems like a Hollywood movie plot. That’s what the six robbers probably thought when they prepared the raid on the 2nd of December in the state of Hidalgo, north of Mexico City. Yet, according to the police reconstruction, what escaped from the gang’s plan was the actual content of the vehicle: 40 grams of radioactive treasure. The truck was carrying containers filled with cobalt-60, a hazardous element mainly used by hospitals in radiology departments but also an object of desire for terrorists who aim to cook a “dirty-bomb”.
A “dirty-bomb” is a radiological weapon created with the combination of conventional explosives and radioactive elements. This kind of non-conventional device, even though rings scary, can’t be considered a “weapon of mass destruction” due to the small amounts of radiations that spreads through the blast. Various factors can influence the effect of a “dirty-bomb”, the most important ones are indeed the weather conditions that can determine the dispersion of the radiation throughout the atmosphere.
So why should terrorists choose a “dirty-bomb” for their attacks? There are many reasons why this kind of device is particularly appropriate for extreme purposes. The first advantage of this radiological weapon is the ease of obtaining the ingredients to combine. As the Mexican gang showed us there are various ways to get the radioactive materials and stealing medical supplies is one of them. Another source of hazardous substances is the black market that is reported to be particularly prolific and active in Russia thanks to orphan radioactive sources left around by the former, nuclear enthusiastic, Soviet scientist.
This unusual “happy ending” does not have to make governments underestimate the threat of a “dirty-bomb” attack.
However, the main reason why terrorist would terribly affect a country with the use of a “dirty-bomb” is the disruptive effect that these kind of threats have on the population. The blast would cause the first visible victims, but the panic that would follow could lead to major damages. The fear would transform the people into an uncontrollable and unmanageable mass, making the rescue and evacuation operations very difficult and causing more causalities. Moreover, the terror of being contaminated by radiations would spread around the city causing general public alarm and directly threatening the stability of the authority. The panic would also be supported by the immediate and the long-term operations of decontamination and the clean-up of the radiologically exposed area. Such measures can be really expensive and, in addition, to the medical treatment of the affected population, which would also cause economic damage to the local administration.
With such knowledge of the disruptive effects of a “dirty-bomb”, it seems strange that no terrorist group has yet succeeded in using one in an attack. Nevertheless there are several reports that account attempts of extremist groups trying to obtain the radioactive device. It is believed that Al Qaeda could pose a “dirty-bomb” threat due to its possibilities to acquire and assemble the necessary ingredients to prepare it, but also due to its determination to undermine the image of the Western world as the winner over extremist Islamic groups. As stated before a “dirty-bomb” would cause disruptive socio-economic and political aftermaths that could weaken the administration of the United States and its allies.
Fortunately, the events that took place in Mexico last week ended up differently. The main reason that led the police to believe that our six Mexican robbers were not aware of the dangerous potential of cobalt 60 was the decision of one of the gangsters to open the container where the hazardous material was conserved. This thoughtless decision brought the bandits direct exposure to the high level of radiations that affected their state of health and forced them to ask for help in one of the hospitals in Hidalgo. The Mexican authorities, right now, are working to decontaminate the area, mainly rural, in which the gang abandoned the truck and its radioactive material.
This unusual “happy ending” does not have to make governments underestimate the threat of a “dirty-bomb” attack. The fact that radioactive material can be easily stolen from hospitals and vehicles points out the general unpreparedness and undervaluation of intrusion possibilities into medical facilities and laboratories. These miscalculations could reveal fatal when, instead of unskilled bandits, the robbers are well trained and highly motivated terrorist. The risk of radiological attacks is an uncomfortable reality that cannot be ignored for the security of innocent civilians and the stability of our countries.