Earlier this week, we reported on an incident in Japan where a UAS carrying a small amount of radioactive material landed at the Japanese Prime Minister’s residence. The perpetrator, Yasuo Yamamoto, seems to be viewed by many people as a “protestor”who was simply carrying out a “stunt” to make a point. But what if he had a more sinister motivation? How much damage could be done? The answer is: quite a lot.
When most people consider the possible terrorist use of a small UAS, they think of bombs. That, however, is not the scenario with which you should be most concerned. A small UAS, which can only carry a few pounds, is not an efficient way to deliver conventional explosives. This is the reason car bombs, with the ability to deliver literally hundreds of pounds of explosives to a crowded street, is still the terrorist’s vehicle of choice.
What about a nuclear attack? You could not deliver a nuclear bomb with a small UAS. Even assuming a terrorist could obtain a sophisticated and well-designed weapon, the smallest low-yield tactical nuclear device built by the United States, the W54, weighs over 50 pounds, far beyond the carrying capacity of a small UAS.
The real danger would come from a radiological attack. The potential for disaster is shown by the so-called “Gioania Incident.” In 1987, a radiotherapy machine was stolen from a medical facility in Brazil. The thieves, not knowing what they had, took it to a scrap yard for its salvage value. Through a series of mishaps, the radioactive core of the machine, containing 3 ounces of Cesium-137, was opened and small amounts of the pretty blue “glowing” material wound up in the hands of various people. By the time the authorities figured out what had happened, the radioactive material had been taken all over town, including on a public bus. Over 130,000 people had to be screened for radiation exposure, and approximately 250 were found to be contaminated. Twenty people ultimately developed radiation sickness, and four people died, including a six year old girl.
This is the true nightmare scenario. Weapons grade nuclear material is unnecessary to cause a public panic. Hospitals in Brazil were overwhelmed by masses of people seeking screening when the crisis was at its height.
A small UAS, able to disperse powdered radioactive material over an urban area or a crowded stadium, would produce enormous fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. When this is coupled with round-the-clock news coverage, it would not matter whether anyone ultimately suffered a serious injury, it would still terrify the nation. Hopefully, there are people at Homeland Security who will take the implications of Yasuo Yamamoto’s “stunt” more seriously than the news media.
(Originally posted May 1, 2015)