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[cdn-nucl-l] Cesium-137 'dirty bomb' material seized in Thailand
This is quite upsetting. There is no info in this news item on the amount
(weight) of the shielding.
I suppose there are some pretty nasty chemicals that could be used for dirty
bombs, but the image of exposure to nuclear radiation is likely much more
terrifying. The idea of potential delayed cancers and genetic effects from
small exposures to radiation seems to be more fearful than the immediate
consequences of chemicals that we sense (although there are concerns about
delayed effects also).
Radioactive 'dirty bomb' material seized in Thailand
By Philip Shenon
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
June 14, 2003
WASHINGTON - Authorities in Thailand, acting on information from U.S.
investigators, seized a large amount of radioactive material from a Thai
man, breaking up a plot to sell it to terrorists.
He was peddling it for use in "dirty bombs," according to U.S. law
U.S. officials said the seized material - which Thai authorities said was
cesium-137, a radioactive byproduct of nuclear power plants commonly found
in medical equipment - was believed to have originated in Russian stockpiles
and been taken to Thailand through Laos. It could easily have been used in
terrorist weapons, the officials added.
Law enforcement officials and terrorism specialists said they were alarmed
that so much of the material - as much as 66 pounds, according to initial
reports - apparently was available for sale on the black market. Even a
dirty bomb with only a few grams of cesium would be deadly, experts said. It
was particularly troubling that the material had turned up in Thailand,
which the al-Qaeda terrorist organization has long used as a hub in
Southeast Asia, they said.
This week, three men suspected of being Muslim terrorists were arrested in
southern Thailand and accused of plotting to blow up foreign embassies and
U.S. interests in Thailand.
"This enforcement action represents an outstanding example of international
cooperation in disrupting the proliferation of radiological material," said
Tom Ridge, the Homeland Security secretary, whose department was responsible
for the U.S. part of the cesium investigation.
The man arrested yesterday, Narong Penanam, 44, of Thailand's Surin
province, was taken into custody in the parking lot of a Bangkok hotel. U.S.
officials said his accomplices were still being sought by the Thai police,
but that he had no known ties to terrorist groups.
Earlier this month, they said, the man had provided undercover Thai police
officers with a metal box containing at least several pounds of what he
described as weapons-grade uranium, as a sample of what he said he could
provide them later in larger quantities.
An analysis of the material by the Thai Atomic Energy Commission revealed
that it was not uranium, but cesium-137, which experts say could easily be
used by terrorist groups to make dirty bombs, in which radioactive material
is wrapped around conventional explosives. Police officials in Thailand said
the man had expected to be paid $240,000 for the material.
Cesium-137 is the most common radioactive form of the metal cesium. It is
commonly used in radiation treatment of cancer and in a variety of gauges in
the construction and drilling industries.
In Washington, the Department of Homeland Security, which became responsible
for the investigation after the department took over the Customs Service
this year, said yesterday that the inquiry began last October, when customs
investigators based in Bangkok received information about the possible sale
of weapons-grade uranium. Such material could be used in fission weapons
capable of destroying entire cities.
In an announcement of yesterday's developments, the department said the U.S.
agents "immediately began working with the Royal Thai Police and the U.S.
Embassy on an investigation into this matter" and set up undercover meetings
with suspects in the case. Earlier this month, U.S. officials said, the key
suspect provided undercover Thai police with the metal container as a sample
of what was available.
After testing showed the material was radioactive cesium, U.S. officials
said, Thai police moved yesterday to make the arrest.
A statement from the Thai Royal Police in Bangkok yesterday said that Narong
had told them that the metal box with the cesium had been brought to
Thailand from Russia, and that it had been stored for a time in Laos.
Nuclear experts said they would not be surprised if the material came from
Russia or other parts of the former Soviet Union, which have been the source
of much of the radioactive material seized on the black market in recent
The specialists said they were startled by reports of the amount of cesium
found in Thailand.
"Pounds? Most studies of dirty bombs start off describing weapons with an
ounce of cesium," said Joseph Cirincione, director of the Non-Proliferation
Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
"Cesium-137 is serious stuff, highly radioactive," he said. "You put it
alongside 10 pounds or more of dynamite, and you've got a really dangerous
terror weapon. It might not kill many people, but it would terrify a city."
Charles D. Ferguson, a physicist at the Monterey Institute's Center for
Nonproliferation Studies, said the investigation in Thailand was "very
significant - cesium-137 has been high up on my list of radioactive isolates
to be concerned about for dirty bombs."