Update On The Dirty Bomber

March 16, 2009

I had not realized that Rachel Maddow discussed the Maine dirty bomber incident on her showa few days ago, and had a local reporter from the Bangor Daily News who covered the story and nuclear weapons expert Joseph Cirincione, co-author of the authoritative Deadly Arsenals, the ultimate guide to all things WMD, and currently president of the Ploughshares Fund. The entire discussion is short and it’s worth reading the entire transcript. Here’s an important excerpt:

“MADDOW: Joe, from the publicly available information about this case, can you tell whether or not James Cummings had amassed enough material to make any sort of credible dirty bomb?

CIRINCIONE: This was sort of a starter kit can for a dirty bomb. He
clearly, he was trying to put together the explosive part of it. The radioactive material wouldn‘t have caused much radiation damage.

This was fairly low level stuff, uranium, beryllium, thorium—yes, these are dangerous materials. Beryllium if inhaled, for example, will give you lung disease. But nothing like what he really needed.

What‘s disturbing is that he had material on cesium-137, on Cobalt-60. These are the highly radioactive sources, the classic dirty bomb. A few grams of this in an explosive device could contaminate 20, 30 square blocks.

MADDOW: And he had information about those materials, but he didn‘t have those materials themselves.

CIRINCIONE: That‘s exactly right. So, the question is, if he had more time, could he have gotten that? Could he have posed a serious risk?”

So Cummings did not have all of the necessary components for a radiological device – he had amassed some weakly radioactive materials but nothing along the lines of Cesium-137.

A few more interesting points on this case:
(1) All of the radioactive materials procured by Cummings were gotten legally.
(2) He was quite open with his neighbors in Belfast, Maine about his political proclivities, his white supremacist affiliations, and his love of Adolf Hitler. Nobody saw fit, based on this, to talk to authorities.
(3) The authorities were not on to what this guy was doing until AFTER HE WAS DEAD.
(4) His wife killed him because he was violent and abusive, not because he was trying to build a dirty bomb.
(5) According to his wife, the prime motivation for the bomb was the election of Barack Obama.
(6) Although we’ve heard lots of discussion about dirty bombs in the media (always focused on Islamic terrorists), and although the Bush administration had originally claimed that Jose Padilla’s mission was to construct a dirty bomb (which was later left out when formal charges had to be filed), this is the FIRST SERIOUS CASE of a would-be dirty bomber in the United States (yes, I know, “dirty bomber” sounds, well, odd…).

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