Why the World Should Still Worry About Dirty Bombs

December 15, 2023
William C. Potter, Sarah Bidgood, Hanna Notte

Why the World Should Still Worry About Dirty Bombs: With Radiological Weapons, States—Not Terrorists—Pose the Main Risk

The following is an excerpt from Foreign Affairs.

In the years after the 9/11 attacks, a new threat loomed large in the minds of policymakers and the public: the dirty bomb. This term describes a radiological weapon that used an explosive to disperse radioactive material over a limited area. A dirty bomb is far less powerful than a nuclear bomb, but it is easier and cheaper to assemble and can cause tremendous panic and disruption. Many analysts feared that terrorist groups would seek to develop and use such weapons: in 2002, U.S. officials announced the detention of Jose Padilla, an American citizen and alleged al Qaeda operative who they insisted intended to detonate a dirty bomb in the United States. Since then, several governments in Europe have claimed to have foiled similar plots by terrorist groups.

But visions of dirty bombs and radiological terrorism obscured the fact that the threat from radiological weapons was not limited to terrorist groups. Indeed, for decades, major countries including the United States and the Soviet Union pioneered the development of these weapons. And now, as the norm against nuclear weapons is weakening and tensions between great powers mount, there is reason to worry that the dangers posed by radiological arms proliferation may be growing again.

In the past, at least five states expressed interest in weapons designed to disperse radioactive material without a nuclear detonation. Four states actively pursued them, and three—Iraq, the Soviet Union, and the United States—tested them on multiple occasions before ultimately choosing not to deploy them. The largely obscure history of the development of radiological weaponry helps to explain its appeal, especially in the context of rising international hostilities, a breakdown in nuclear arms control, and a loss of faith in the credibility of security assurances.

Continue reading at Foreign Affairs.

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