Australia’s ‘dirty bomb’ in Vienna

Members of the New York National Guard CERFP prepare to decontaminate "victims" of a simulated dirty bomb incident during training at the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control Training Site in Colonie , NY. Shocked and confused. That’s how the international community is reacting to news that a major Australian radiological security initiative has just been canned. The corridors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were abuzz with this news during a recent conference on nuclear security, held at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna from 1–5 July. The conference was attended by many hundreds of officials and analysts from all over the world, who gathered to discuss nuclear and radiological challenges, including the risk that individuals or groups could acquire and use these materials in terrorist and other malicious attacks. The goal of the conference was to encourage states to cooperate to prevent such attacks, and the Australian initiative was regarded as an important trailblazer and a highly respected contribution to this global effort.

The details of the initiative are worth explaining; it’s a safe bet that few people in Australia were aware of its existence, let alone its sudden cancellation. Known as the Southeast Asia Regional Security of Radioactive Sources (RSRS) Project, it was launched in 2004 as part of the Australian Government’s commitment to international counter-terrorism cooperation. It was run by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (known by its acronym ANSTO), in cooperation with the US Global Threat Reduction Initiative and the IAEA Office of Nuclear Security. Under ANSTO’s leadership, international experts from these organizations worked with relevant regulatory bodies across Southeast Asia to help secure dangerous radioactive sources used in the health and industrial sectors, and to develop strategies for responding to sabotage and other malicious attacks. The focus was mainly on in-country training and workshop programs, including practical exercises, supplemented by regional review meetings (held in Indonesia in 2008, Vietnam in 2010, and the Philippines in 2012).

The RSRS Program helped transfer Australian and international knowledge and skills to local country experts in Southeast Asia, where radiological materials are widely in use and yet controls are weak and often poorly enforced. In transferring this knowledge, Australia’s initiative began to build the local capacity to prevent dangerous materials falling into the hands of malicious actors, who could use them to construct radiological devices known as ‘dirty bombs’.

Such devices could be exploded in urban centres in Southeast Asia, Australia, or wherever else they can be smuggled and detonated. While the impact would be far less catastrophic than an improvised nuclear device using weapons-grade nuclear material, it could nevertheless have serious health, economic, and environmental consequences.

Anyone who doubts the seriousness of the dirty bomb threat ought to read the speeches from the Vienna conference which discussed the IAEA databases that track lost and stolen materials, and exposed some of the plans of terrorist groups that have managed to acquire radiological sources for use in actual attacks. Thankfully, so far all of these plans have been intercepted before they have reached fruition, but this should not detract from the seriousness of the threat—it’s critical that global prevention efforts are maintained.

It was interesting to watch the leadership role that Australian officials played at the Vienna Conference. It was clear that Australian expertise on nuclear and radiological security, and the steps it has taken to encourage regional counter-terrorism cooperation in this area, has earned the country huge international respect. In panel after panel, speech after speech, the knowledge and commitment of the Australian delegation was striking. Outside the conference halls, during discussions between the formal sessions, participants from all over the world expressed their appreciation for the leadership role that Australia plays in promoting nuclear and radiological security best practices. But they also expressed their shock and confusion over the decision to cancel the trailblazing RSRS Program, which was the only one of its kind in the world. One official, who had been unaware that the program had been terminated, referred to the news as ‘Australia’s dirty bomb’.

So why was the program cancelled? It’s difficult to find answers to this question because no one seems quite sure, including some of the experts who were directly involved in the program. It’s possible that the decision reflects a more general shift in Australian Government policy away from counter terrorism and towards more traditional strategic concerns, such as the rise of new global and regional powers. It’s also possible that the decision was based on an assessment that nuclear and radiological threats emanating from Southeast Asia have diminished, partly due to the success of the RSRS program itself, and partly due to other cooperative counter-terrorism efforts, which have squeezed al-Qaeda out of Southeast Asia and drastically reduced the influence of Jemaah Islamiyah (the perpetrators of the 2002 Bali bombing).

But if that’s really the thinking behind the decision, it’s incredibly short-sighted. First, terrorist threats are constantly evolving, and scaling back counter-terrorism cooperation because the problem has ‘been fixed’ is unwise. Second, the cost of the RSRS Program was mere petty cash in terms of Australia’s defence and security spending. ANSTO spent $567,000 in 2010–11 and $228,000 in 2011–12 (PDF, p72). This was a program that provided a big bang for the buck. Third, the RSRS Program was the kind of cooperative security activity that our mutually vulnerable, interconnected world desperately needs, which makes its cancellation all the more confusing.

Tanya Ogilvie-White is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of the New York National Guard.