White Supremacists Want a Dirty Bomb
And the Trump administration is letting them get dangerously close to acquiring one.
On Dec. 9, 2008, police raided the home of the millionaire James Cummings in Belfast, Maine. Cummings was an abusive husband, and he had been shot in the head by his wife, but that wasn’t what still disturbs investigators to this day. At Cummings’s home, police obtained radiological material and literature on constructing a dirty bomb. Cummings had collected the radioactive isotope thorium-232 and depleted uranium, the latter of which he bought online, along with the materials necessary to build a conventional explosive. Angered by the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president, Cummings had compiled the materials he deemed necessary to build a dirty bomb just 42 days before the inauguration.
At the scene, investigators found literature on how to create different types of radiological dispersal devices (RDDs), colloquially referred to as dirty bombs, using the radioactive isotopes cesium-137, cobalt-60, and strontium-90 and an application for the U.S. Nationalist Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi organization. Cummings had ties to white nationalist groups, he revered Adolf Hitler, and, according to workers who spent time in his home, he was a collector of Nazi memorabilia.
More than a decade later, on Aug. 3, 2019, a gunman posted an anti-immigrant, white nationalist manifesto on a far right forum, walked into a Walmart on the East side of El Paso, Texas and opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle, killing 22 people.. There is no longer any question of whether the country is facing the rise of domestic white supremacist terrorists. The question is how far they will go.
While the United States has been focused on the trafficking of nuclear and radiological materials abroad, experts at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) have argued that the threat of dangerous radiological materials being used in America’s own backyard is “just as serious.”
With a wide variety of civilian uses, including in the medical, industrial, and research fields, radiological materials rated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as Category 1 threats—such as cesium-137, cobalt-60, and strontium-90—are left relatively unguarded. These materials could be used to contaminate a major U.S. city with devastating consequences.
That is what makes these devices so attractive to modern terrorist organizations. The Islamic State declared its intent to get its hands on a nuclear device in its propaganda magazine Dabiq. Al Qaeda trained the domestic terrorist José Padilla in Egypt and Afghanistan and then sent him back to the United States to detonate a dirty bomb.
The budding nationalist white supremacist terrorist movement in the United States is no different. Consider the case of the “All-American Nazis.” Four neo-Nazi roommates lived together until one of them converted to Islam and shot two others for disrespecting his religion. The double homicide shed light on an organization called Atomwaffen (German for “nuclear weapons”). Devon Arthurs, the convert to Islam, described Atomwaffen as a terrorist group that had 60-70 members nationwide and planned bombing attacks on synagogues and nuclear plants. Brandon Russell, the roommate who wasn’t home at the time of the argument, had been collecting thorium since the 10th grade. These are not isolated incidents; in 2004 and 2013, the FBI arrested two white supremacists interested in acquiring and detonating a dirty bomb.
Moreover, these are not “lone wolves.” They are part of an extremist network bound by white supremacist ideology, far-right hate, and online indoctrination. And there is no shortage of evidence that they want to acquire their own radioactive weapons.
When it comes to public knowledge about dirty bombs, there are a lot of misconceptions. An RDD does not have to be a bomb; it could be a radiological material in a crop duster or any other tool that can disperse the material. Positioned correctly, even wind itself could disperse a radiological material like cesium-137, which is a powder in its most common form.
No one has ever succeeded in detonating a dirty bomb, but Andrew Bieniawski, a former vice president for material security and minimization at NTI, said the United States has “thousands and thousands” of radiological sources that could be used in one. The delivery system of an RDD is essentially arbitrary: “Getting the material is the most difficult step in the process,” he said.
“We’re concerned about cesium because it is located in open environments and not behind guns, gates, and guards like nuclear material,” said Ioanna M. Iliopulos, a senior consultant at NTI. “Most medical and research centers that contain cesium chloride have gram-sized quantities of radioactive material, which could create a lot of havoc if stolen and dispersed in a major metropolitan area.”
The havoc that Iliopulos is referring to is not a high body count but the economic fallout from having to cordon and restore major metropolitan areas as well as having to relocate the local population because the radiological material would render the area uninhabitable. During the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, cesium-137, cesium-134, iodine-131, xenon-133, and strontium-90 were released into the atmosphere. To this day, cesium-137 and strontium-90 are the main sources of radiation around the Chernobyl power plant and the most dangerous to public health.
Another challenge posed by an RDD is that both the New York Stock Exchange and the U.S. government are centralized geographically and institutionally. According to a 2018 study by the Sandia National Laboratories—one of three National Nuclear Security Administration research laboratories—the economic impact of an RDD released on New York City could cause up to $30 billion in economic damage over 10 years from business disruption, decontamination, health problems, and a loss of tourism. “The goal of the white nationalist movement is to disrupt the current society in enough of a way to inspire other people to pick up arms against the government,” Assistant Anthropology Professor at Vanderbilt University with a specialization in white nationalism, Dr. Sophie Bjork-James told FP.
Cesium-137 would be especially troubling if set off in a metropolitan area as it clings to concrete. The same study says fatalities from the evacuation could be as high as 1,500. This is at the level of a socioeconomic 9/11.
“We call it a weapon of mass disruption because it disrupts and leads to economic impact, not mass casualties,” Bieniawski said. “This material is dispersed. So if it is metal or powder, it gets in the air, the buildings, the metro, the air ducts, and then you basically have people breathing in this material and have to tear down these city blocks.”
To put this into perspective, the Sandia study poses a single question: “Would the U.S. maintain its world financial standing after an RDD attack in lower Manhattan?”
In a December 2015 presidential debate, Donald Trump said a “maniac” getting his or her hands on a nuclear weapon was the “single biggest problem” the country faced. As president, his policies have indicated otherwise.
The country’s nuclear and radiological security falls under the auspices of the Energy Department, which is currently run by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The appointment of Perry as energy secretary has caused concern among experts as Perry previously called for the dissolution of the IAEA, which monitors nuclear stockpiles.
Perry also said he would get rid of the department during his 2012 presidential campaign and was unaware that one of the Energy Department’s main responsibilities was nuclear and radiological security, which comprises nearly two-thirds of its annual $30 billion budget.
In July, the secretary found himself in hot water after it was discovered that for six years radioactive shipments from Tennessee to Nevada were mislabeled and shipped not in compliance with safety regulations. This prompted Nevada Rep. Steven Horsford to call for Perry’s resignation. This came six months after the Energy Department disclosed that it secretly shipped weapons-grade plutonium from South Carolina to Nevada. The governor of Nevada took the department to court on the grounds that it disregarded the dangers of moving the plutonium to an area that is subject to flash floods and earthquakes. In the words of Rep. Dina Titus of Nevada, “The level of incompetence at the Department of Energy is only matched by its dishonesty.”
This is the third time this year that the Energy Department has drawn outrage for mishandling nuclear waste. In June, the department decided to reclassify high-level nuclear weapons waste to a lower category. Paul Dabbar, the undersecretary for science, said the decision was made to allow for faster cleanup of contaminated areas and to cut back costs.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the reclassification would allow the Energy Department to abandon storage tanks of more than 100 million gallons of some of the “most toxic and radioactive waste in the world” across three states at low ground levels. The byproduct of the production of nuclear weapons is a dangerous cocktail of IAEA Category 1 radiological materials, including strontium-90, americium-241, and plutonium-238. “The Trump administration is attempting to alter five decades of national consensus on handling the most toxic waste in the world,” said Geoffrey Fettus, a senior attorney for the NRDC.
“This change by the DOE is very concerning to me,” said Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, a scientist-in-residence and adjunct professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “It misses the point about how dangerous these materials are. It is not just because of radioactivity that these materials are dangerous but also because they are chemically toxic themselves. … There has been a strong interest in watering down some of the regulations [at the department], which is a serious concern.”
U.S. regulation of radiological materials can seem illogical. As NTI experts argued in a 2015 op-ed in the Washington Post, “As it stands, even if a state wants to voluntarily increase security for its radiological sources beyond federal minimums, the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] regulations don’t allow it. State regulators’ hands are tied because state regulations for the majority of U.S. radiological material essentially must be identical to those established by the NRC.”
Bieniawski, the former NTI vice president, said: “There are two concerns of terrorists getting radioactive material. The first is that they steal highly enriched uranium, uranium-235, that can be used to make an improvised nuclear device, and the second is that they try to steal radiological material that cannot be used to make a nuclear device but can be used to make a dirty bomb.”
According to Bieniawski, the threat of terrorist cells receiving weapons-grade uranium and creating a nuclear device has become unlikely in recent years. From 2004 to 2012, under Bieniawski’s leadership, the Energy Department’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative removed 2,300 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium from vulnerable locations around the world—enough material to make more than 80 nuclear weapons.
Still the issue that concerns security experts is the threat of an RDD, which can be made of materials that, according to Bieniawski, have tens of thousands of sources in more than 150 countries. Materials such as cesium-137, cobalt-60, and strontium-90 are used in medical facilities, research labs, oil drilling, pest insect sterilization, and other relatively unguarded civilian industries.
According to NTI’s Iliopulos, there are 500 irradiators using cesium-137 in the United States. A random inspection in 2012 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) discovered that NRC requirements “do not consistently ensure the security of high-risk radiological sources.”
The GAO found a cesium-137 irradiator sitting in a wheeled pallet down a hallway at one facility. At another, a cesium-137 irradiator was clearly labeled behind a door that up to 500 people had access to. The GAO found the security controls for stationary sources like cesium-137 irradiators especially lacking.
A 2014 GAO report found that portable radiography cameras containing iridium-192, an IAEA Category 2 radiological material, were “susceptible to theft or loss.” The GAO identified multiple cases of theft, including one case of a truck that had a radiography camera stolen from it at a hotel. The GAO also reported incidents of unauthorized people trying to gain access to these portable sources and astoundingly the impersonation of state radiological safety and security inspectors where the mobile sources were in use.
In September 2010, someone pretending to be an inspector approached a radiography crew, became “confrontational,” and refused to provide identification. The individual was found to have been convicted on multiple counts “including assault, forgery, and terroristic threats.”
Perhaps most alarmingly, the report describes both outsiders and insiders as a threat when it comes to the theft of radiological materials. In the 2014 report, two cases were found in which employees with “serious criminal records” were given unescorted access to radiological materials. One of the employees was convicted twice—among other charges—for “terroristic threats.”
Estimating the fallout from a dirty bomb is a purely hypothetical exercise. The projections are often vague and conflicting. Precisely because the event has yet to occur, any attempt to dictate the aftermath of a strategic RDD event is fundamentally absurd. No one actually knows. Various experts push conflicting theories. Often agendas are at play. Even the respected literature on RDDs ranges from apocalyptical to benign fearmongering. Body counts from a strategic explosive RDD range from 20 to 1,500. Official data on the economic fallout ranges from $30 billion to $1 trillion.
This is unknown territory, and we can only hope that it remains such. But the more data compiled, the more numbers crunched, and the closer the calls, there is a sense of inevitability to the employment of an RDD. As the NTI op-ed argued, “We are exposed, and the clock is ticking.”
Experts remain baffled as to why no one has succeeded in using a dirty bomb to date, despite some close calls. At its peak, the Islamic State frightened international security experts when it captured Mosul, where two caches of cobalt-60 were locked in the university. Islamic State leadership was either unaware of its presence or did not know where to find it.
“They are not that smart,” an Iraqi health ministry official told the Washington Post. But the concern with dirty bombs is that you do not need to be “that smart” to create one.
Meanwhile, on Aug. 9, the U.S. State Department confirmed that Matthew Gebert, a foreign affairs officer assigned to the Bureau of Energy Resources, was linked to a white nationalist organization. One of the main goals of the Bureau of Energy Resources is promoting energy security. In 2018, Gebert allegedly told a podcast, “[Whites] need a country of our own with nukes, and we will retake this thing lickety split.” Gebert worked in the State Department for six years and is currently on leave pending an investigation.
“It is very difficult for any security system to protect against knowledgeable insiders,” said Miles Pomper, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and co-author of the paper “Promoting Alternatives to High-Risk Radiological Sources.” “Think about the pilots who intentionally choose to crash their planes with passengers aboard. Given that radiological sources are employed in places such as universities and hospitals, whose top priorities aren’t security but accessibility, this is a particular risk for these materials.”
Washington, D.C., is centralized within 68 square miles. The financial district of lower Manhattan is within half a mile. A small vial of a radiological material like cesium-137 could take out the New York Stock Exchange.
While the United States was fighting terrorism abroad, a far greater threat arose at home. Large quantities of IAEA Category 1 materials, such as cesium-137, strontium-90, and cobalt-60, are easily available in medical, industrial, and research facilities. With the rise of domestic terrorism, a highly dangerous scenario has materialized in America’s backyard.
Will Cathcart is a journalist and editor based in Tbilisi, Georgia, and a former media advisor to the President of Georgia.
Joseph Ari Epstein is an NYC-based freelance journalist who studies International Relations at Columbia University.