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Dirty Bomb

Chronology of Events
by Lexi Krock and Rebecca Deusser

Dirty Bomb homepage

The history of the dirty bomb has yet to be written, because fortunately no one to date has ever deployed a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material. However, a slew of worrisome incidents in several countries involving loose or orphaned radioactive devices forms a chilling chronology and a stark reminder that a dirty bomb could explode tomorrow anywhere in the world. Terrorist groups are actively pursuing unsecured radiological material, and several of them may already possess dirty-bomb capabilities. In this timeline, review the past 15 years of news-making incidents involving unprotected radioactive materials worldwide, including many occurrences of accidental encounters that prove just how easy it is to acquire these dangerous substances.

September 1987

The destruction of a contaminated Goiaina home.

The destruction of a contaminated Goiaina home


Goiaina, Brazil—A scrap-yard worker pries open a lead canister that was scavenged from an abandoned cancer treatment center and dumped at the yard five days earlier. Inside the canister the man is delighted to find a sparkling blue powder; he has no idea the powder is radioactive cesium. Curious residents living near the junkyard pass the canister from home to home for nearly a week. All told more than 200 people are exposed to the cesium. The incident—a radiation disaster second only to Chernobyl in size and scope—causes the deaths of four people, including a six-year-old girl who rubbed the powder over her body and hair so that she glowed. The radioactivity contaminates soil, businesses, and homes, 85 of which are leveled during the cleanup process.

November 1995

The cesium-filled package uncovered in a Moscow park.

The cesium-filled package uncovered in a Moscow park


Moscow, Russia—In the first-ever attempt at radiological terror, a group of Chechen rebels contacts a Russian television station and boasts of its ability to construct a radioactive bomb. The rebels alert the press that they have buried a cache of radiological materials in Moscow's Ismailovsky Park. In the very spot where the rebels indicated it would be, authorities find a partially buried container of cesium. Neither the Chechens who planted it there nor the original source of the cesium are ever identified.

March 1998

Cesium tubes similar to the ones missing from Greensboro.

Cesium tubes similar to the ones missing from Greensboro


Greensboro, North Carolina—Nineteen small tubes of cesium go missing from a locked safe in Moses Cone Memorial Hospital. Each only three-quarters of an inch long by one-eighth of an inch wide, the tubes were being stored for use in the treatment of cervical cancer. Though local, state, and federal officials scour the city using sophisticated radiation-sensing equipment, the cesium is never recovered. Authorities believe whoever stole the cesium tubes—for the loss is officially listed as a theft—may have been trained to handle the material, since unprotected contact with the tubes could have caused serious injury or even death. After the loss, the hospital takes steps to better secure its nuclear assets.

December 1998

Shamil Basayev, Chechen rebel leader.

Shamil Basayev, Chechen rebel leader


Argun, Chechnya—The head of the Russian-backed Chechen Security Service, Ibragim Khultygov, announces that a Security Service team has found a container filled with radioactive materials and attached to an explosive mine hidden near a railway line. They safely defuse the bomb but do not identify the radioactive substances involved. The location of the discovery—in a suburban area 10 miles east of the Chechen capital of Grozny, where a Chechen rebel group is known to operate an explosives workshop—leads nuclear specialists to suspect Chechen rebels' involvement in the incident. Shamil Basayev, the rebel leader who phoned in the dirty-bomb threat in Moscow three years earlier, is the known chief of the explosives workshop near Argun.

September 1999

Inside the Radon Special Combine in the Chechen capital.

Inside the Radon Special Combine in the Chechen capital


Grozny, Chechnya—Unidentified thieves attempt to steal a container of radioactive materials from the Radon Special Combine chemical factory. Half an hour after being exposed to the container, one of the suspects dies and the other collapses, even though each held the container for only a few minutes while trying to carry it out of the factory. The surviving suspect is hospitalized in critical condition, but he recovers and is placed under arrest. Chechen officials do not discuss his case publicly, nor do they identify the type of radioactivity involved in the incident, saying only that the container held 200 grams of "radioactive elements."

June 2001

Russia's Murmansk coastal region

Russia's Murmansk coastal region, which is studded with unsecured nuclear lighthouses


Kandalaksha, Russia—Two people in Russia's Murmansk region receive powerful doses of radioactivity and are hospitalized after plundering a nuclear-powered lighthouse, one of 132 such lighthouses located along Russia's northern coast. The scavengers say they were trying to extract lead from the lighthouse for sale as scrap metal and were unaware of its dangerous strontium power source. Inspectors later detect elevated radiation levels for hundreds of feet on the route along which the two carried a leaking lead container before abandoning it. Though Russia's Soviet-era nuclear lighthouses were originally designed to withstand earthquakes and even planes crashing into them, after years of neglect these unguarded and uninspected structures are easily dismantled by thieves. In January 2003, the U.S. government announces a plan to aid Russia in safely replacing the energy sources of all of its nuclear lighthouses.

December 2001

The radioactive device and its containment bucket with handles.

The Georgia radioactive device and its containment bucket with handles


Lja, Georgia—Three woodcutters discover two heat-emanating containers near their campsite in the remote Abkhazia region of the Caucasus. Hoping to use the containers as a heat source, the men drag them back to their tents. Within hours they become ill with nausea, vomiting, and dizziness, and leave the site to seek treatment at a local hospital. Later, the men develop severe radiation burns on their backs. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) dispatches a team to recover the containers, but severe weather prevents them for more than a month from reaching the campsite and securing the materials. When the IAEA team finally reaches the containers in February 2002, they discover that each one, previously used in Soviet-era radiothermal generators, contains 40,000 curies of strontium, an amount of radiation equivalent to that released immediately after the accident at Chernobyl.

June 2002

Jose Padilla

Jose Padilla, who allegedly intended to explode a dirty bomb in the U.S.


Chicago, Illinois—Jose Padilla, an American citizen and former Chicago gang member with known ties to Al Qaeda, is arrested in Chicago's O'Hare airport on suspicion of planning to build and detonate a dirty bomb in an American city. F.B.I agents suspect Padilla has recently undergone training in Lahore, Pakistan, where he allegedly studied the mechanics of dirty-bomb construction, including how to wire explosive devices and how to optimize bombs for radiological dispersion. Officials believe Padilla, who arrived in the U.S. carrying a suitcase packed with $10,000 in cash, was on a reconaissance mission for a future dirty-bomb attack. Padilla is being held as an "enemy combatant" in a military brig and may be detained indefinitely.

November 2002

Yuri Vishnyevsky

Yuri Vishnyevsky, the head of Russia's nuclear regulatory agency


Moscow, Russia—The head of Russia's nuclear regulatory agency, Yuri Vishnyevsky, announces that small amounts—a few grams here and there—of weapons-grade and reactor-grade nuclear materials are missing from the country's atomic facilities. Vishnyevsky does not provide details on when and how the materials disappeared, but he indicates that the material involved is uranium. According to experts, a few grams of weapons-grade uranium would not be sufficient to make an effective nuclear bomb, but it could provide material adequate for a dirty bomb. Moreover, small amounts of reactor-grade uranium can be enriched to weapons-grade through a process that some rogue nations possess, including Iraq. With Russia's nuclear security in severe decline due to financial troubles and disorganization, Vishnyevsky's announcement underscores a major source of concern about unsecured radioactive materials in Russia.

January 2003

A collage of dirty bomb plans

A collage of dirty bomb plans journalists recently discovered in Afghanistan


Herat, Afghanistan—Based on evidence uncovered in Herat, including detailed diagrams and documents stored on computers, British intelligence agents and weapons researchers conclude that Al Qaeda has succeeded in constructing a small dirty bomb, though the device has not been found. Officials do not know how much radiation the dirty bomb could spread, but they suspect that Afghanistan's Taliban regime helped Al Qaeda build the device by providing radioactive sources from medical devices. Furthermore, Abu Zubaydah, the captured Al Qaeda lieutenant now in American custody, told interrogators that such a device existed. In Kabul, in April 2002, IAEA experts secured several powerful unguarded radiation sources, mainly cobalt, once used in medical and research applications.

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Dirty Bomb Web Site Content
Preparing for Terrorism

Preparing for Terrorism
Graham Allison discusses both radiological and nuclear terrorism.

Ask the Expert

Ask the Expert
Charles Ferguson of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies answers your questions.

Chronology of Events

Chronology of Events
Review incidents involving unprotected radioactive materials.

Sources of Radiation

Sources of Radiation
Explore radioactive sources both harmful and beneficial, natural and manmade.

Lexi Krock is assistant editor of NOVA online and Rebecca Deusser is the site's intern.

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