The control of radioactive materials and chemical weapons has long been safely in the hands of state actors.[1] Recent world events, however, illustrate a contemporary environment where non-state actors, specifically terrorist organizations, have acquired such materials. In June 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)[2] reportedly seized control of nuclear material controlled by the Iraqi government at the University of Mosul.[3] The ISIL also entered the al-Muthanna project site located 60 miles north of Baghdad near the town of Samarra where the “remnants of the former [Iraqi] chemical weapons program were kept.”[4]

The al-Muthanna site is a 100-square-kilometer complex that has been the center of Iraq’s chemical weapons program since the 1970s. Before 1986, the site was known as the State Establishment for Pesticide Production (SEPP), a front company dedicated to the production of chemical weapons. During the 1980s, the site produced hundreds of tons of Sarin, VX, and mustard agents.[5] Aerial bombing during Desert Storm destroyed the research and production facilities at al-Muthanna and ended its ability to produce chemical weapons. The exact contents of the two bunkers that the ISIL entered are not generally known, but according to Michael Luhan, the communications chief for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), “the two bunkers contained chemical weapons which are pre-1991.”[6]

The ISIL’s entry into al-Muthanna appears to have been an isolated incident, and the lack of security around a remote chemical weapons site in Iraq pales in comparison to the ready accessibility of radioactive materials. Radioactive materials are used in a variety of research fields and medical treatments globally. Such materials are generally tightly controlled and monitored at institutions such as hospitals, which are required to undergo inspections and report radioactivity. These measures alone, however, do not always ensure the security of the materials. In December 2013, for example, a truck carrying radioactive waste from a hospital in Tijuana to a storage site near Mexico City was stolen.[7] The material on the truck was cobalt-60, which emits both beta and gamma radiation. The radioactivity levels that make cobalt-60 a source of radiotherapy also make the material a potential candidate for use in a dirty bomb.[8] The radioactive material in Mexico was rapidly recovered by Mexican security forces and its theft was attributed to “common crime and not related to terrorism.”[9] In Iraq, however, the state does not control the nearly 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of uranium or 0.125 kilograms (0.28 pounds) of thorium stolen from the University of Mosul, and the thieves are part of a known terrorist organization.[10]

The lack of control of radioactive materials and former chemical weapons agents in Iraq is a concern, but the requisites to make the stolen materials into a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) are currently lacking. This article provides important technical context surrounding the capture of radioactive materials and the possible theft of decaying chemical weapons by the ISIL in Iraq. It finds that while such incidents are a threat in the immediate and long term in the Middle East, the potential for mass casualties is currently low due to scientific and technical challenges faced by the ISIL.

Are the Stolen Materials WMD Capable?
The stolen radioactive and chemical weapons materials clearly pose a potential threat, but could the ISIL easily transform them into a WMD?

Uranium is relatively inert despite the fear the name often instills. This fear stems from the role uranium plays in nuclear weaponry and the destruction demonstrated when “Little Boy” was detonated on August 6, 1945, over Hiroshima with the equivalent of 16,000 tons of TNT. “Little Boy” contained 64 kilograms of uranium-235.[11] The process to separate the uranium isotopes during World War II was accomplished through gaseous diffusion, an extensive process that required nearly one-seventh of the electrical power in the United States at the time.[12]

Thorium is more abundant than uranium, and like uranium is only slightly radioactive. Thorium itself is not a fissile material; however, it is considered a “fertile” material, meaning it can absorb neutrons and transmute into uranium-233.[13] This artificially produced uranium can then be chemically separated from thorium and used as nuclear fuel.[14] Uranium-233 produced from thorium was used with plutonium-U-233 devices tested in 1955.[15] The yield of the detonation was less than anticipated.[16] The process of transmuting thorium and then separating the produced uranium-233 is complex and not one that the ISIL would easily be able to accomplish while on the move in Iraq.

By definition, the chemical weapons and precursor material stolen from the al-Muthanna site are already WMD, but the current state of the material is questionable. Even in ideal conditions, such as those in specially equipped “igloos” that maintain temperature, humidity, and pressure, chemical weapons leak as seals decay. Conditions at the al-Muthanna site for the past two decades have been far from ideal. In conjunction with the damage sustained during both Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, as well as the inability of the government to rebuild the complex due to United Nations sanctions, it seems likely that the chemical weapons were stored in bunkers that were not temperature or humidity controlled.

Chemical weapons agents are frequently found as liquids and stored either in ammunition rounds or rockets for immediate use, or in separate containers. The colligative properties of the viscous liquid are designed to absorb heat and protect the function group of the agent when the rounds detonate.[17] The liquid of a chemical weapon is analogous to a glass of salt water—left in the open, the water will evaporate leaving behind remnants of the original solutes. The harsh environmental conditions in Iraq likely left the chemical weapon rounds empty with the exception of a residue immediately covering the rounds. In the absence of the viscous liquid, the chemical agents would be subject to chemical reactions that could potentially make the agent inert. Reconstituting the chemical agents would require tremendous effort to include tightly controlled laboratory conditions and a plethora of reagents.

What Are The Potential Uses?
Modifying the radioactive materials and chemical weapons into a functional WMD would require materials, specific laboratory conditions, and technical expertise currently not available to the ISIL. Despite ostensibly controlling a large swath of land across Iraq, the ISIL does not possess the infrastructure to create WMD using limited resources. If the ISIL actively sought to convert the materials into a WMD, they would likely smuggle them into Syria where, despite the ongoing civil war, a greater level of expertise and infrastructure—especially near the universities—exists.

Immediate uses, however, reside in the form of chemical or radioactive dirty bombs. A dirty bomb laced with radioactive material would not detonate like a nuclear weapon; instead, the unconventional dirty bomb would disperse radioactive material over a detonation area. Moreover, uranium and thorium have relatively long half-lives, which means that the dispersed material would remain radioactive for a longer period of time.[18] Nevertheless, according to the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, the most abundant isotope of uranium, U-238, emits both alpha particles and weak gamma rays. As a result, as long as the isotope is not inhaled or ingested, there is little to no effect on humans.[19] The risks of thorium exposure and radiation poisoning are similar to that of uranium.[20] As long as the materials are not ingested or inhaled, there is little to no increased risk for the population since these naturally occurring elements are present in everyday life. Both elements are also dense. If released into the air via a dirty bomb, they would rapidly resettle to the ground, limiting the potential for inhalation exposure.

Consequently, a dirty bomb laced with the materials stolen by the ISIL would be akin to blowing up a ceramic brick. The initial explosion would cause damage, but the effects of the radioactive material would be extremely limited.[21]

Similar to the radioactive dirty bomb, an explosive device containing the remnants of the chemical weapons from the al-Muthanna project site would have almost no chemical agent fallout. Since the viscous protective fluid that is used in chemical weapons has likely evaporated over the past two decades, any effects of the agent in an explosive device would likely be insignificant.[22] VX, for example, decomposes at a rate of 5% per month at 71 degrees celsius,[23] hence two decades or 240 months in a non-environmentally controlled bunker would leave little, if any, chemical agent. The destructiveness of the device would be limited to the explosive nature of the device itself and not the remnants of the chemical weapon agent.

If the chemical weapons were in better condition than assumed, long distance transport of the weapons would be difficult. Seals on the chemical weapons containers would naturally degrade and break down, making transport difficult and a danger to those moving the weapons. If the ISIL sought to transport the weapons via aircraft, the pressure change would push the agent through whatever seal remained. Transporting the weapons via ground would also cause similar problems as the jarring transport of a truck along unpaved and pothole-filled roads would likely cause the degraded seals to leak, affecting those transporting the weapons.

What Are The Immediate Risks?
As the fighting continues in Iraq and Syria, the risk of the stolen chemical and radioactive materials being turned into a WMD is extremely low. Perhaps the greatest threat to civilians would be if the ISIL attempts to poison or contaminate water or food supplies. To employ such a tactic, the ISIL would need to attack a specific target or group since such a method of attack on a reservoir or large water source would simply dilute the material. If the material were too diluted, then there would be no noticeable effect. It could cause a higher long-term rate of cancer in the affected population, but it would not be debilitating or impact the ISIL’s fight either in Iraq or Syria.

The most dangerous course of action is not enveloped in the immediate uses and risks of the stolen materials. If the materials are smuggled out of Iraq and likely into Syria, then the ISIL could begin the slow purification process of the radioactive material or attempt to regenerate the deadly properties of the remnants of the chemical weapon agents. Reconstituting the chemical weapons is scientifically and technically easier than the radioactive material, but still not trivial. Both require expertise, chemical reagents, and, perhaps most importantly, they require time.

The theft of the radioactive material and chemical weapons agents mostly illustrates the ISIL’s bold aggression in the Middle East. Despite raising safety concerns and the unsettling notion of the ISIL controlling any components from WMD, the reality is that the ISIL’s members put themselves at risk of exposure via inhalation and ingestion in the acquisition, storage, and transportation of the material. The psychological effects of detonating a dirty bomb laced with either the chemical weapon agents or the radioactive materials would also be minimal since there would be little to no visible evidence of the materials’ presence in those people affected by the blast.

There are two great lingering concerns regarding the stolen materials. What is the ISIL planning to do with the material since their immediate effects in Iraq and perhaps Syria are limited? What other materials are vulnerable in either Iraq or Syria that could be used to greater effect?

Radioactive materials such as uranium and thorium are “dual purpose” in the sense that they can be used for good in efforts such as medical treatment, or for ill in their conversion to a deadly unconventional weapon. Assessing and ensuring the security of these materials is paramount, and should be a concern not only in Iraq and Syria, but throughout the region.

Captain Stephen Hummel is a FA52 officer and currently serving as an instructor teaching in the Chemistry and Life Science Department at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. CPT Hummel previously served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and as the USAREUR CBRN plans officer.

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or any of its subordinate commands.

[1] There are a few exceptions to this rule, but the sheer expense of developing and maintaining such materials and weapons has been prohibitive to anyone but state actors.

[2] In June 2014, the ISIL shortened its name to the “Islamic State.” This article, however, still refers to the group by its more common name, the ISIL.

[3] Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim, “Letter Dated 30 June 2014 from the Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations Addressed to the Secretary-General,” United Nations Security Council, 2014.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Al Muthanna Chemical Weapons Complex,” Central Intelligence Agency, April 23, 2007.

[6] Awad Mustafa, “Experts Assessing ISIL’s Seizure of Iraqi Weapons Facility,” DefenseNews, July 2, 2014.

[7] Randal C. Archibold and Paulina Villegas, “6 Arrested in Theft of Truck with Radioactive Waste,” New York Times, December 6, 2013.

[8] A dirty bomb is a combination of radioactive material and explosives such that the radioactive material is dispersed over a large area and exposes a large number of people to its damaging effects.

[9] Archibold and Villegas.

[10] Ambassador Mohamed Ali Alhakim, “Letter Dated 08 July 2014 from the Permanent Representative of Iraq to the United Nations Addressed to the Secretary-General,” United Nations Security Council, 2014.

[11] Uranium naturally occurs in three isotopes: uranium-234, uranium-235 and uranium-238. Uranium-235 is the fissile (material capable of sustaining nuclear fission) isotope (form) of uranium yet composes only one percent of the naturally occuring isotopes. To have enough fissile uranium to form a nuclear weapon, the one percent of the uranium is separated from the other 99% of the isotopes in a complex process commonly referred to as enrichment. There are additionally 26 artificially made isotopes of uranium.

[12] This vast amount of energy was required to power the Y-12 where workers used calutrons to refine uranium and at the K-25 plant where the uranium was enriched. At the height of production during World War II, nearly 100,000 workers toiled to produce the material used in the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan. See Alan Taylor, “The Secret City,” Atlantic, June 25, 2012.

[13] Transmutation is the process of changing from one element to another through nuclear bombardment or disintegration.

[14] “Thorium,” World Nuclear Association, March 2014.

[15] Oliver Tickell, “The Promise and Perils of Thorium,” James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, October 31, 2012.

[16] Ibid.

[17] The viscous solution contains particles designed to alter the boiling point, vapor pressure and other properties of the solution so that it can absorb heat. The solution and its colligative properties are akin to coolant in a car radiator.

[18] A half-life is the time required for one half of the atoms of a radioactive substance to disintegrate. Uranium, for example, has a half-life of 4.45 billion years. For details, see “Uranium: Its Uses and Hazards,” Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, December 2011.

[19] Ibid.

[20] “Thorium,” Environmental Protection Agency, February 28, 2014.

[21] The detonation would cause the brick to fragment and then settle back to the ground. The stolen materials would act in a similar fashion. The remnants of the chemical weapons agents would be destroyed in the explosion instead of aerosolized. The stolen radioactive materials would not cause a secondary explosion or radioactive plume. The dust and pieces of the material generated in the explosion would settle and be indistinguishable to the eye from other debris.

[22] The chemical weapons potentially stolen from the al-Muthanna site are likely highly degraded due to the difficulty in maintaining the weapons and the difficulty in ensuring the proper environment, especially through bombings and wars. According to the CIA, the site sustained heavy damage over the years. For more details, see “Al Muthanna Chemical Weapons Complex.”

[23] “Potential Military Chemical / Biological Agents and Compounds,” Field Manual 3-11.9, U.S. Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, January 2005, pp. II-27

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