Packaging conventional explosives with radioactive material and detonating this radiological dispersal device (RDD) to kill and terrorize people—the “dirty bomb” scenario—is, unfortunately, readily within the means of some terrorist groups. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports that radioactive material needed to build an RDD can be found in almost any country in the world, and more than 100 countries may not have adequate control and monitoring programs to prevent or even detect the theft of these materials. The agency also reports numerous incidents of illicit trafficking in radioactive materials, including ionizing radiation sources (IRSs) used in medical, agricultural, and industrial applications. Potential links of such trafficking with international criminal organizations heighten the concern about these materials falling into the hands of terrorists, who could use them in RDDs or in other ways to threaten populations. These concerns are sufficiently serious that they have been a focus of several initiatives announced by the leaders of the G-8 governments at recent summit meetings.
Given these developments, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) requested the National Research Council (NRC) to carry out an assessment of the threats posed by inadequately protected IRSs in Russia. The assessment was to lead to recommendations that could enhance the effectiveness of DOE’s current cooperative program with Russia to reduce the threat posed by inadequately secured IRSs in Russia. This program began in 2003 in recognition that, after the United States, Russia has the world’s largest inventory of IRSs and a number of aspects in the security
of IRSs throughout the country should be upgraded promptly. This report presents the findings and recommendations of the committee of specialists assembled by the NRC in response to DOE’s request.
The challenges in preventing detonations of RDDs are immense, and they will persist for many years. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of inadequately protected IRSs that are considered dangerous by safety standards adopted by the IAEA are present in many countries. Some are in use, some are in storage, and some are awaiting permanent disposal. Also, some IRSs have simply been abandoned by their legal custodians because there were no financially affordable disposal pathways for those that had exceeded their useful lifetimes or were no longer needed. Poorly protected IRSs, particularly those that have been abandoned, can become easy prey for terrorist groups.
Detonating an RDD cannot trigger a nuclear explosion with its familiar mushroom cloud. Unlike nuclear weapons, RDDs cannot kill tens to hundreds of thousands of people and obliterate a city instantly. However, the disruption attendant to an RDD detonation could be widespread, particularly if it occurs outdoors in a densely populated urban area and the RDD is designed to maximize the dispersal of radionuclides. Although the number of victims resulting from the effects of radiation will most likely not be great, the psychological impact of a radiological attack may lead to widespread fear, serious social disruption, and potentially catastrophic economic consequences.
From the U.S. perspective, the primary concern is the prevention of detonations of RDDs within the United States or against U.S. interests abroad. A related concern is illicit spreading of radioactive material from IRSs or other sources in populated areas through water routes and other pathways. To guard against attacks in the United States, preventive measures are focused on securing inadequately controlled IRSs that are currently in the country. Unfortunately, hundreds of unwanted IRSs have not been under adequate control, but DOE, with the assistance of other federal and state agencies, has mounted an aggressive program to find, collect, and secure these orphan sources, and many have been brought under much better control.
Terrorist groups might also try to smuggle IRSs or radioactive material in other forms into the United States. A variety of homeland security programs are in place to help prevent penetration of U.S. borders. However, this is a most difficult task, and the prevention of smuggling of nuclear materials across U.S. borders must be the object of continued vigilance.
The U.S. government is also concerned about the targeting of dirty bombs against U.S. assets abroad. Such assets include embassies, military bases, privately owned establishments, and other facilities of importance to the U.S. government or private sector. Disruption of activities at some of these facilities, particularly those that serve as governmental centers or as transportation or communication hubs, would have profound security implications.
The IAEA is leading international efforts to enhance the security of IRSs. The agency has prepared the Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources1 and supporting documents that provide guidance for ensuring both the safety and the security of IRSs. It has developed recommended approaches for member states to control their imports and exports of IRSs.2 Also, it has long had a technical assistance program to help member states improve the security of IRSs. These efforts are a good beginning, but worldwide implementation remains a major challenge. DOE, in close cooperation with the IAEA, has undertaken a limited but important set of cooperative activities with a number of countries in enhancing the security of IRSs in these countries. Programs in Russia have been an important component of this global effort.
This report focuses on IRSs in Russia. Based on site visits by committee members, consultations with dozens of Russian and U.S. specialists, and reports prepared by our Russian collaborators, the committee concludes that shortcomings in the security and life-cycle management of IRSs in Russia present a serious problem.
Hence, the special attention directed to security of IRSs in Russia within DOE’s global programs is very appropriate. The Soviet Union had many potent IRSs throughout the country, probably numbering in the tens of thousands. Most of them were located in the Russian Republic of the USSR and remain in the Russian Federation today. Additional IRSs are being manufactured at the Mayak Production Association and elsewhere in Russia for use in the country and for export.
The task of adequately securing even the most dangerous IRSs in Russia is daunting. For example, hundreds of radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) are located in the northern reaches of the country,
IAEA. 2004. Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources. Vienna: IAEA.
IAEA. 2005. Guidance on the Import and Export of Radioactive Sources. Vienna: IAEA. Available online at http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/Imp-Exp_web.pdf. Accessed November 14, 2006.
and the logistics to recover those that are no longer needed or could be replaced with other energy sources are formidable. Reports of criminals having stripped the metal off some of these RTGs indicate the vulnerability of the radioactive components to theft as well.
In addition to the problem of securing RTGs, the committee observed security deficiencies in protecting other types of IRSs of concern. IRSs that could provide material for RDDs are located in hundreds of institutes, enterprises, hospitals, and other locations, which are within easy reach of criminals or terrorists. Also, the committee heard reports from Russian officials in Yekaterinburg of unwanted IRSs frequently being discovered in abandoned facilities and in open fields.
If IRSs are stolen or diverted in Russia or any country, they might enter the international black market and possibly fall into the hands of terrorist groups that could target U.S. assets in the United States or abroad. Significant portions of the IRSs that have been intercepted at border crossing points and elsewhere have been of Russian origin. The likelihood of stolen Russian IRSs being smuggled into the United States seems relatively low since a terrorist group would probably try to obtain an IRS that is already located in the United States rather than risk detection at a point of entry into the country. However, the use of Russian-origin IRSs against U.S. assets in Russia itself (e.g., U.S. Embassy, facilities of U.S. companies), Central Asia (e.g., U.S. military bases), the Middle East (e.g., U.S. military or private facilities), or elsewhere could have a dramatic impact on U.S. national security interests.
Thus, a successful RDD detonation in Russia, or indeed in any country, poses serious problems for the United States. Such attacks could provide a “proof of principle” for terrorists who have not yet used radiological weapons, possibly encouraging copy-cat attacks by terrorists in the United States or against U.S. interests abroad. A significant radiological attack in any major capital or financial hub would likely adversely affect the global economy, including the U.S. economy. It could have global repercussions in terms of the safety and public acceptance of nuclear technologies, just as the Chernobyl accident affected the acceptance of nuclear power. An RDD attack in Russia or elsewhere could also undermine the credibility of the IAEA as an effective international organization for ensuring nuclear safety and security, at a time when the United States is firmly committed to strengthening this organization to deal with nuclear security and nonproliferation issues worldwide. The United States has considerable interest in helping to ensure that the security of IRSs in Russia meets an international level of acceptability and that Russia improves the full life-cycle management of its IRSs.
DOE has made a very good start in working with Russian organizations to upgrade the security of IRSs. Even with the limited funds available to date, this program is improving the security of IRSs in Russia. Also, DOE has gained considerable experience in developing and carrying out significant on-the-ground activities in Russia.
Linkages have been made with key Russian organizations. Important problems were selected for initial “quick fixes”—improved regional and ministry inventories of IRSs, accelerated time lines to reduce the number of vulnerable RTGs, collection and disposal of unwanted IRSs, and enhanced security at some storage and disposal facilities. Initial projects in each of these areas have been successfully completed.
Of particular importance, the modest U.S. financial contributions to the cooperative program to date have helped focus Russian attention on critical aspects of the security of IRSs. The joint efforts have most likely stimulated other Russian efforts in addition to those associated with the cooperative program. Continued encouragement of the Russian government to address the security of IRSs more aggressively in these areas is important. Also, new opportunities for collaboration that build on early successes have emerged (for example, involvement of more Russian ministries in the collaboration and demonstration of low-cost approaches at model facilities).
Thus, the program of quick security fixes is very important and should be continued, and DOE leadership should expedite its implementation. The committee encourages DOE to continually evaluate the effectiveness of the quick fixes from a risk reduction point of view. Of particular concern to the committee is the end-of-life-cycle management of IRSs that are no longer wanted, including many that have simply been abandoned. Of course, counterpart Russian organizations should be involved in evaluation efforts as well as in planning and prioritizing future activities.
The committee is deeply concerned about the continuing decline in the level of DOE resources being allocated to the cooperative program in Russia. However, the committee is not in a position to recommend expansion of current activities or initiation of new activities in the absence of an overall DOE plan that clarifies how the cooperative program can be most effective in reducing risks attendant to inadequately protected IRSs. Thus, a primary recommendation of the committee is that DOE develop a comprehensive plan to work with Russian counterparts to reduce the overall risk and consequences of radiological terrorism. This
plan should become an important basis for budget requests to support the program.
The plan for the cooperative program should be developed within the context of a comprehensive Russian program for ensuring adequate life-cycle management of IRSs throughout the country and should take into account activities of other external partners. However, because a comprehensive Russian program may take years to develop fully, DOE should move forward promptly to work with Russian counterparts to address the most urgent problems and help them develop and implement their program. Of special relevance to development of a comprehensive Russian program for addressing the security of IRSs is the approach of the Federal Agency for Atomic Energy (Rosatom) in the area of “safety” of IRSs and radioactive waste. Rosatom has developed and regularly articulates a comprehensive overview of safety-related actions that are needed and are under way. According to Rosatom officials, this overview is very helpful in guiding the national effort. These officials informed the committee that a comparable program strategy to help guide the approach to “security” of IRSs has not been developed, although its importance appears to be recognized by the Russian government.
In summary, only the Russian government can strengthen the many weaknesses in the security system for IRSs and in dealing with the overall threat of radiological terrorism in Russia. However, the committee believes that technical cooperation by DOE and other external partners, along with carefully selected financial investments in such cooperation, will help the Russian government focus on developing a more comprehensive approach to ensure adequate life-cycle management of IRSs than currently exists. Such cooperation will lower the risk of radiological terrorism to both Russia and the United States.
The United States is not the only country vitally concerned with IRS-related developments in Russia. Other countries are also contributing financial resources and expertise for selected activities. The Scandinavian countries have long had interests in replacing the RTGs in the Far North of Russia. Japan carefully watches developments in the Far East. Ukraine is concerned about radionuclides of Russian origin being smuggled into its territory. As apprehensions about radiological terrorism increase in Europe, many G-8 governments have recognized the risks posed by inadequate security and control of radioactive materials, particularly IRSs, in Russia.
Thus, the international community will probably embrace a number of program approaches advocated by the committee. These include devel-
opment of financially affordable pathways for unwanted IRSs; upgrading security facilities that house highly active IRSs; plans for managing the consequences of IRS incidents; expanded risk analysis capabilities to help establish priorities; and of course, a comprehensive Russian program, which is crucial to long-term success in combating radiological terrorism.
In conclusion, the committee firmly believes that the United States has played and should continue to play an important leadership role in catalyzing this widespread interest in enhancing the security of IRSs in Russia. Such leadership is highly significant in reducing the likelihood of radioactive materials in Russia finding their way into RDDs that are detonated in Russia or elsewhere.
Expeditious implementation of the current cooperative program of quick security fixes, strong encouragement of the Russian government to carry out a comprehensive program for enhancing the security of IRSs, and development and implementation of an overall plan for U.S.-Russian cooperation that supports critical aspects of a comprehensive Russian program should be the hallmarks of U.S leadership.