Preventive measures are necessary. But strategies to address the threat from dirty bombs are incomplete without deterrence
Peter Zimmerman’s op-ed in the New York Times (also published in DNA) is not uninformed scaremongering. The use of radioactive polonium by whoever it was that killed Alexander Litvinenko has changed the way security analysts look at “dirty bombs”: materials like polonium were hitherto ignored as ingredients of dirty bombs because the alpha particles they emit can be easily blocked by garments and skin. But if they are somehow ingested by the body, those alpha particles can be lethal. Zimmerman argues that if a dirty bomb spreads a cloud of polonium dust, hundreds or thousands of people can die a slow, painful death. Terrorists can find the polonium they need easily enough. It’s not easy, but they only need to master the business of working polonium into a form that will easily disperse into the atmosphere. [Also see these articles by Tatyana Sinitsyna]
Zimmerman’s warning should be taken seriously because what he warns against is within the realm of the possible. But it must also be seen in context — polonium is but one of the dangerous materials that can be packed in a dirty bomb. There are numerous biological agents (remember the anthrax scare) and chemical agents (remember Aum Shinrikyo) that too are relatively easy to procure, handle and work into a explosive. This is not to say that the threat from a smoky polonium bomb must be ignored. Rather, it is that it must be seen and tackled as part of the overall dirty bomb threat.
Regulating the sale, concentration and use of polonium in the short-term and substituting it in the long-term are worthwhile efforts, but only preventive and precautionary ones. Such efforts are necessary, but not sufficient, because they do not deter the use of dirty bombs. There’s something common to almost all the ingredients of dirty bombs — it is relatively easy to trace their origins. There is also something common to most acts of terrorism — they have a degree of state support. Therefore, while the terrorists of the sort of al-Qaeda might not respond to the logic of deterrence, the states that support them certainly will. The goal of deterrence should be to prevent states that sponsor terrorism from assisting terrorists in manufacturing and using dirty bombs. And how can this deterrence be achieved? By treating the use of dirty bombs as an act of nuclear war launched by the state from which the WMD material originated. There are all those questions of accidents, mistakes and unintentional proliferation. But it is the existence of such doubts accompanied by the fear of retaliation that creates powerful incentives for states to get really serious.
But what if the dirty bomb and the terrorist are both home grown? Now, that’s the tough one.