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Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 09:25 | SYDNEY

The dirty bomb threat

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30 November 2007 12:38

Overnight reporting that Slovakian police have made arrests in relation to the smuggling of weapons-grade uranium is a concern, though we probably don't have to duck and cover just yet.

The amount of material found (less than 0.5kg) is about 1/50th of what would be needed to make a  crude nuclear bomb (according to this excellent book), so is not significant in terms of a terrorist nuclear weapon threat. According to IAEA figures, this bust is somewhere in the upper-middle range of the amount of material that has been found smuggled before. There have been a few incidents where two to three kilos of weapons-grade material were found, but usually much less.

The potential bad news is that a recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies pooh-poohs the IAEA figures, because the IAEA relies exclusively on government disclosure for its stats and doesn't look at open source reporting, which turns up many additional reports of concern. The worry, of course, is that a determined terrorist group could build up stocks of nuclear weapon material in small doses over time.

The other major concern is that such small amounts of weapons-grade material, even if insufficient for a nuclear weapon, could easily be used for a 'dirty bomb', in which radioactive material is blown up with conventional explosives to disperse the radioactivity. As a 2004 Pentagon study showed, such an attack would likely cause few casualties but would be highly disruptive and costly to clean up.

UPDATE: The Federation of American Scientists, on its blog, notes uranium does not make for good dirty bomb material.

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