I recently took part in a discussion that focused on the nature of the nuclear threat in today’s post 9-11 era. Leading this discussion was Donald Lumpkins, Branch Chief for DHS/FEMA. Mr. Lumpkins provided a brief assessment of the current nuclear threat, and how it has impacted planning, strategy, and training for all levels of government.
Most of us remember the cold war era, the Cuban missile crisis, and the now infamous “duck and cover” videos from school. Fear struck at the hearts of our political leaders as several nations began building large stockpiles of nuclear weapons that were to be used only as a deterrent against other nations. The concept of mutually assured destruction pushed scientists to build even more powerful atomic weapons. Large metropolitan areas, sources of economic power, as well as military installations were high on the list of targets. The use of these weapons would have changed the landscape of America forever.
Thankfully we never witnessed the exchange of nuclear weapons in all out war. The cold war ended without any incident. Since then nations have agreed to reduce the number of nuclear warheads stored or maintain. That’s not to suggest that all of the old threats have gone away. Let’s be honest. Nuclear weapons are still in the hands of countries that are not exactly on best terms with the US, like North Korea. Furthermore, nuclear materials are used regularly across the US in laboratories, hospitals, and other industries. Accidents still happen. Nuclear weapons and nuclear materials are here to stay and are a part of our everyday lives.
The threat of nuclear weapons for the 21st century has changed with the emerging threat of terrorism. Terrorism has been around for a long time. It was not invented out of 9-11. But what is important about that date is the amount of intelligence that was gained about this adversary, and the intent of these organizations to do harm. Today terrorism is the driving force of numerous homeland security strategists. Why?
One reason is today’s threat of nuclear weapons. “We now face a threat of a small, man portable device, delivered in novel ways – no longer the bomber over the city or a missile from 6,000-7,000 miles away, but rather the threat of someone potentially driving a van down the street with one of these weapons.” says Lumpkins. Lumpkins goes on to say, “These smaller weapons – one kiloton – non-nation state actors – terrorists acting to disrupt how we function as a nation – and in that vein, these weapons are likely to cause as much disruption as destruction.”
A relatively small device of this type would not necessarily destroy an entire city, but rather a portion of a large city. Once this event is initiated emergency responders must now deal with the resulting fall out, electromagnetic pulse knocking out communications, and radiation hazards for personnel and citizens. Make no mistake; US intelligence officials believe that terrorists are trying to acquire nuclear materials to be used in an improvised nuclear device (IND) for such an attack. One of the best examples is in Pakistan where the Taliban have attacked nuclear facilities several times. A similar event also occurred on November 2008 in South Africa.
Another emerging threat for the 21st century is that of the radiological dispersal device or RDD. This is radiological source attached to an explosive device. Let me be clear. This is not a nuclear explosion. Not even close. The right types of materials are not present. Typically the radiological sources used come from exit signs, smoke detectors, and other industrial sources. The primary threat of this type of device is the blast itself. The radiation hazards are usually non-life threatening, and are usually added to instill fear or panic.
In many ways it sounds like a daunting task rebuilding a city that has been mostly leveled or at least contaminated by a low level source. But this is where the planning begins, and where homeland security strategists focus the efforts to ensure the safety of our nation. Who or what organizations have the intent or motivation to use such tactics? This may be obvious to some. Most might consider international organizations such as Al Qaeda before a domestic or lonewolf attack. But this is a mistake and could be a dangerous assumption. Where and how will these organizations acquire the sources to create such a device? In the US nuclear materials are relatively speaking well secured. However, the threat of “the insider” for organizations that maintain these sources is always looming. How will we prepare our citizens for the worst? This question has largely been unanswered. The good news is our government at all levels federal, state, and local are talking about these types of questions now.