At the end of the Nuclear Summit in Washington last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that the Islamic State plans to use drones to spray nuclear material over Western cities. Of course, most people have already forgotten that something similar happened, on a very small scale, almost a year ago, when Yasuo Yamamoto landed a UAS on the roof on the Japanese Prime Minister’s residence with a small amount of radioactive material. At the time, the perpetrator was viewed by most people as a “protestor” who was simply carrying out a “stunt“ to make a point. The incident did, however, get a fair amount of coverage overseas, and the idea could easily have been seized upon by more enterprising and serious-minded terrorists.
So, what would a radiological terror attack look like? What would be the effects? We don’t actually have to speculate on these points, all we have to do is look to the past. The potential for disaster is clearly 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 three 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.
Even though this incident did not involve malicious intent, and no effort was made to spread the contamination, the resulting panic was substantial. Hospitals in Brazil were overwhelmed by masses of people seeking screening when the crisis was at its height. Now, consider the impact where the same material is dispersed in an efficient manner, combined with the modern 24-hour news cycle. The impact on the public would be hard to overestimate. In addition, the effect on the small UAS industry and the model aircraft community would be devastating. The resulting backlash by state and federal legislators and regulators would effectively shut down operations until comprehensive, and more restrictive, regulations were in place.
So, here is hoping that Homeland Security has been using the last year, since Yasuo Yamamoto’s “stunt,” to good effect, and the terrorists never get an opportunity to carry out an attack like this.