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Review of J*P*A*C and the Politics of Human Skeletal Identification

This review appeared in Forensic Science International: Synergy (Volume 1, 2019, pp. 211-213) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fsisyn.2019.08.004

Book Review

Cole, Paul M. POW/MIA Accounting: Vol. 2: J*P*A*C and the Politics of Human Skeletal Identification. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN-13: 978e9811364655; ISBN-10: 9811364656. XXXI pages; 1002 pages

Dr. Paul M. Cole is an angry scholar. While he attempted to hold in his anger and frustration, he wasn’t always successful. This book, unlike Vol. 1 (detailing Dr. Cole’s involvement with the Cold War POW/MIA issues and his involvement in archival and policy decisions), is a more personal account of Dr. Cole’s participation in the former Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC). JPAC was a military command within the Department of Defense that was the sole authority for the identification of missing US service members from past conflicts, particularly WorldWar II, the Korean War, Southeast Asian Conflict, and the first GulfWar (Cole, Chapters 1 and 5; [1]).

Why is Dr. Cole angry? He is angry because he documents a denigration of science as well as personal attacks within and outside the command for doing what he was paid to do.

This is a hefty tome and weighs in over 3 pounds with over 1000 pages of text. Its style ranges from a detailed discussion of legal statutes and congressional mandates to something that reads like a novel, full of intrigue, conflict, and gossip. There seemed to be little editorial work as there appears to be least one typographic error on every page. The poor quality of reproduction of many of the photographs and diagrams often distracts from the text, which often describes the colors of the original diagrams (which are reproduced as gray-scale documents). However, these should not detract from this important story.

The book is fully documented with quotes and details from various sources, statutes, and emails obtained through a legal discovery process. The book refers to a series of chronological events, but it is organized by themes. It is difficult to say which would have been better, but the thematic seems to work, although it seems to suffer from the definitions of terms or groups coming after the initial use of the term. (For example, the term “Secret Blog” is used almost from the beginning of the book, but the term isn’t defined until much later in the book.)

The book is available from Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com and ranges from US$140 to US$170.

Dr. Cole’s book is an incredibly personal journey into the unravelling of what many scientists regarded as the largest skeletal identification laboratory of its kind in the world as well as the “gold standard” of forensic anthropology in the nation. This unravelling occurred as a result of internal conflict, poor leadership, and scientific illiteracy. While an important part of this is an autobiographical story, this book review does not deal with his ORISE/ORAU termination, lawsuits, defamation, etc. that are part of his journey and the source of much of his anger. Be forewarned, the reader may be distracted by some of the more sardonic comments that are liberally peppered throughout the volume.

Dr. Cole compares much of what happened with various Cold War entities in the Soviet Union related to control of science and politics. This current review focuses on specific failures of upper non-laboratory leadership related to whether or not to follow congressional statutes as well as a “battle against science”.

Weak Senior Leadership and Lack of Accountability. Dr. Cole covers the legal mandate of working on “pre-enactment” cases, that is, cases before the enactment of National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) 1996, which became law in 1997. In [2]; there existed three methods of accounting for deceased personnel, but a rewrite of the law with [3]; only a single method was deemed as the legal standard, according to this bill passed by Congress.

Thus, the only accounting method mandated in [3] was ParagraphB, Section 1513 (Definitions) Title 10, USC of [2]:

‘‘(B) the remains of the person are recovered and, if not identifiable through visual means as those of the missing person, are identified as those of the missing person by a practitioner of an appropriate forensic science …”

This became the only legal form of identification of US missing personnel as of 2010 (see Cole Chapter 1 for a more detailed discussion).

Other non-laboratory individuals in different sections followed other lines of inquiry for identification and effort. These efforts were in direct violation of federal law and guidance as outlined above. These other methods were put forth and supported by the Command as a rationale for continued work on cases; thus, a narrative or story developed by a non-scientists was deemed as important as the forensic work by the professional scientists of the laboratory and served as a means to continue investigating cases that yielded no or few remains in the past instead of working on other cases that could be more fruitful.

The War Against Science. “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge‘.” Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, 21 January 1980.

Dr. Cole, who does not claim to be a forensic anthropologist, does a very good job in outlining the basic science process at JPAC of the Central Identification Laboratory as well as various historical and statistical projects (Solvability/Resolvability) that became essential aspects of the research in the laboratory (Cole Chapter 2). These include basic forensic anthropological techniques that are the staple of undergraduate and graduate education.

Starting with the history of the Central Identification Laboratory, research into innovative scientific methods was part and parcel of the Laboratory’s mission since World War II (see [4] for an early example). This type of research remains as mandate of the Laboratory, but not without its challenges.

One of the most egregious things that Dr. Cole documents is the anti-science aspects of the politics of human skeletal identification (Cole Chapters 6 and 12). This anti-science attitude permeated JPAC and manifested itself with major conflicts between the historical and intelligence analysts and the CIL scientists. The scientists were seen as arrogant, special, elitist, etc. This was because, legally and according to [3]; the forensic science “trumped” any stories asthe only legal method of identification. However, no one was held accountable for ignoring the legal statute on what constitutes an identification of an individual. Dr. Cole refers to this anti-science attitude as part of a much larger attitude that exists in the US, usually referred to as the Dunning-Kruger (DK) effect. The DK Effect is a cognitive bias in which individuals, who are unskilled at a specific task, believe themselves to possess above-average ability in performing the task. A major corollary of this effect is that uninformed opinion is elevated to the same level as scientific fact or process.

Other examples within the media include the anti-vaxxer scandals, which permeate the idea that a Google search is equal to a lifetime of research by a scientist. At JPAC the DK effect manifests itself in that the scientific process would be usurped by just-so stories.

Most scientific laboratories have a hierarchy of effort or tasks, with lower-level tasks being the foundation and the highest portion of the hierarchy being the most specialized. While this idea goes against this reviewer’s sense of equality, to state that all tasks at JPAC were equal in their contribution to the identification process seems ridiculous; in other words, following congressional law that an identification is only done through a practitioner of an appropriate forensic science, the main contribution to the identification (science) should receive the bulk of the resources. This philosophy really damaged the morale of the scientific staff and ignored Department of Defense policy (DOD Instruction 3003.1) which created a hierarchy of information. Circumstantial and contested information was at the lower levels and forensic factual and scientific informationwas at the top. JPAC senior leadership ignored this and instead adopted an attitude that everyone made an equal contribution to the identifications, even the grounds-keeping staff.

According to Dr. Cole, a former commander of JPAC even admitted to needing to “take the lab down a notch” and dilute the robust science of identification (Cole, Chapter 6) due to the perceived arrogance of the scientific staff. This is a common thread throughout Dr. Cole’s book (also see Cole, Chapter 12). Even when a validated forensic technique (using chest radiographs was established within the CIL and published in peer-reviewed journals; e.g. [5]), opposition from outside the laboratory claimed that this was not a standard method of identification. Even though radiographs have been used for positive identification in a variety of fields for over 100 years, the former commander took it upon himself to become the sole approving authority of this method. It should be noted that the commander was not a scientist but trained as a lawyer.

However, this war on science appears to be becoming a standard practice in the United States Government. The DK Effect seems to have infiltrated many aspects of federal science and federally funded science. Politicians routinely criticize National Science Foundation grants and funding and want science research to focus on more limited, more applied science. The interference of politicians has become a standard practice, particularly in terms of climate research and even has resulted in the expurgation of the term “climate change” on a variety of federal websites and information (e.g., [6e10]).

Why is the science important? Or, more importantly, why does it need to be independent of a non-scientific interference? The science used in human skeletal identification must be robust, not just because of protecting scientific integrity of the laboratory and its procedures, but because of the ethics involved in possible misidentification (e.g., [11]).

Leaders of the laboratory have often been accused of being severely risk adverse, in terms of not wanting to create a situation related to a misidentification, especially if could be avoidable. To create sound, scientific identifications using the most robust sciences follows the purposes of forensic science:

…“to ensure the reliability of the disciplines, establish enforceable standards, and promote best practices and their consistent application…” ([12]:xix).

All in all, this is an important story that needs to be heard. The Scientific Analysis Section of the DPAA is considered by many forensic scientists to be the largest skeletal identification laboratory and it may come as a surprise to many to learn about the strife and difficulties in working within a federal system. The control and development of scientific methodologies and processes should be controlled by the scientists. To this reviewer’s knowledge, nowhere else in the Department of Defense is the development of science controlled by non-scientists, with this level of interference or lack of scientific leadership (see Cole, Chapter 5). However, this situation seems to become the norm, particularly in terms of environmental and climate change sciences.

Conflict of Interest

Until 6 July 2019, I acted as the Deputy Director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s Scientific Analysis Directorate (Laboratory) on Joint Based Pearl Harbor-Hickam AFB. I have acted in various roles within this laboratory and its predecessors (Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command e 2003e2015; US Army Central Identification Laboratory-Hawaii e 1998e2003).

References

[1] Paul E. Emanovsky, William R. Belcher, The many hats of a recovery leader: perspectives on planning and executing worldwide forensic investigations and recoveries at the JPAC central identification laboratory, in: Dennis C. Dirkmaat (Ed.), A Companion to Forensic Anthropology, Wiley-Blackwell Publishers, 2012, pp. 567e592.

[2] U.S. Congress, NDAA. https://www.congress.gov/104/plaws/publ106/PLAW104publ106.pdf, 1996. (Accessed 10 August 2019).

[3] U.S. Congress, NDAA, National Defense authorization Act 2010. https://www. congress.gov/111/crpt/hrpt288/CRPT-111hrpt288.pdf, 2010. (Accessed 10 August 2019).

[4] T.W. McKern, T.D. Stewart, Skeletal Changes in Young American Males. Quartermaster Research and Development Center, Environmental Protection Research Division, 1957. Report No. EP-45.

[5] Carl N. Stephan, D’Alonzo, S. Susan, Emily K. Wilson, Gregory E. Guyomarc’h, Pierre, Berg, John E. Byrd, Skeletal identification by radiographic comparison of the cervicothoracic region on chest radiographs, in: Krista E. Latham, Eric J. Bartelink, Michael Finnegan (Eds.), New Perspectives in Forensic Human Skeletal Identification, Academic Press, Elsevier, London, U.K, 2018, pp. 277e292.

[6] Coral Davenport, How much has ‘climate change’ been scrubbed from federal websites? A Lot. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/10/climate/climatechange-trump.html, 2018. (Accessed 10 August 2019).

[7] Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, Website Monitoring, 2019. https://envirodatagov.org/website-monitoring/. (Accessed 10 August 2019).

[8] Stephanie Pappas, Scientists: call for citizen review of funding is misleading. html, 2010. (Accessed 10 August 2019).

[9] Stephanie Pappas, Scientists cry foul over report criticizing National Science Foundation. https://www.livescience.com/14353-coburn-nsf-fundingmisleading. html, 2011. (Accessed 10 August 2019).

[10] Alex Scoville, Boulder climate scientist sues Trump Administration over matter of ‘scientific integrity’. https://www.cpr.org/2019/07/29/boulder-climatescientist-sues-trump-administration-over-matter-of-scientific-integrity/, 2019. (Accessed 10 August 2019).

[11] Nicholas V. Passalacqua, Marin A. Pilloud, Ethics and Professionalism in Forensic Anthropology, Academic Press, 2018.

[12] Committee on Identifying the Needs of the Forensic Sciences Community, National Research Council, Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward, National Academies Press, Washington DC, 2009.

William R. Belcher Department of Anthropology, 824 Oldfather Hall, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Lincoln, NE, 68588, USA E-mail address: wbelcher2@unl.edu.

28 August 2019

Available online 6 September 2019

2589-871X

POW/MIA Accounting – Vol 2: J*P*A*C and the Politics of Human Skeletal Identification ORDER NOW

Volume 2 is now available for purchase from Palgrave-Macmillan.

From the publisher’s description:

This book, the second of a two-volume series entitled POW/MIA Accounting, summarizes the final four of the author’s seven-year association with the U.S. government’s program to account for military service members who went missing during America’s historic conflicts. Based on hundreds of primary source documents including email and records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, this volume is an unprecedented description of the extent of political interference in the science of human skeletal identification. The narrative in Volume 2 derives from the author’s four-year experience as a member of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s (JPAC) Central Identification Laboratory located at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Oahu, Hawaii.  

POW/MIA Accounting — Volume 2: J*P*A*C and the Politics of Human Skeletal Identification To Be Published in April 2019

According to the publisher Palgrave-Macmillan the second volume of POW/MIA Accounting, which is in the production phase, is scheduled to be published and available for hardback and e-book purchase in April 2019.

POW/MIA Accounting — Volume 1: Searching for Missing American Servicemen in the Soviet Union, published by Palgrave Macmillan in April 2018, is available for purchase here.

Volume 2 is a first-hand account of the author’s four years as an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Fellow assigned to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) located at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii.

Volume 2 covers several important issues, including how the accounting program was subjected to “policy capture” by a paid lobbyist; the explanation for why JPAC’s J2/R&A section failed in its mission to locate the remains of missing American service members; the corruption in JPAC’s travel program; the weaponization of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); the extent of scientific illiteracy in the accounting program’s top leadership; as well as pervasive intereference in the science of human skeletal identification by the media and members of Congress.

When Volume 2 becomes available, a link to the Palgrave-Macmillan site will be posted on this site.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative

In October 2018 I was appointed as a Visiting International Researcher in the Energy Department of the Polytechnical University of Turin, Italy (PoliTo).

The project PoliTo is leading, which concerns China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is entitled “BRI Risk Predictor.”

PoliTo’s approach differs substantively in many ways from other analyses of the BRI. Of particular relevance is PoliTo’s focus on the energy component of the BRI. The energy analysis, which is applied to each of the 72 countries participating in the BRI, looks at the total energy picture, including total exports, imports, reserves, as well as renewable initiatives.

The PoliTo BRI project incorporates social, political and financial risk factors as well. Included in this assessment are factors related to terrorism, China’s Private Security Companies, and the risk to Chinese workers and executives around the world.

The product of the PoliTo BRI project is a comprehensive assessment of the risk profile for each of the 72 countries.

How The U.S. Pays For Korean War Remains

After North Korea turned over 55 boxes of what are expected to be the remains of American service members who went missing during the Korean War, a Pentagon spokesman said “it reimburses North Korea for the costs of the recovery but does not pay for the remains themselves.” (“For the U.S., a frustrating history of recovering human remains in North Korea,” Washington Post, July 4, 2018)

The reality is that the U.S. pays North Korea an extraordinary amount for remains in extraordinary ways.

There are two types of payments:  (1) Compensation, also known as “gratitude payments,” for remains turned over unilaterally, such as the recent delivery of 55 boxes.  (2) Up-front payments to pay North Korea in advance for its contributions to excavations undertaken in North Korean by a mixed team of U.S. and North Korean personnel, known as Joint Recovery Operations (JRO).

With regard to the compensation payments, in 1991-2 North Korea turned over 208 boxes of remains.  On August 24, 1993 the United Nations Command (UNC) and the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) signed an “Agreement on Remains-related Matters.” For the first time, the U.S. military agreed to “render support” for the NKPA’s efforts to locate, exhume, repatriate and identify the remains of UNC personnel.

The NKPA interpreted “render support” to mean that the UNC was required to compensate the NKPA for costs incurred for the previous unilateral turnover.  The NKPA demanded $3 million.  Negotiations were on-again off-again until 1996.  After a meeting in New York, acting on behalf of the UNC which objected to the way DoD had handled the negotiations, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense James Wold agreed to pay the NKPA $2 million.

At the bottom of the New York Agreement was the following handwritten note, “Both sides agreed this compensation will not serve as a precedent for any further compensation.”  The payment was made in Pyongyang on May 20, 1996, apparently in cash.

With regard to the advance payments for the right to conduct JRO’s in North Korea, I obtained the terms of two payments made in 2004 and 2011. These are referred not as agreements, but “Record Of Arrangement.”  The final clause of the 2011 deal states, this Record of Arrangement “is a voluntary arrangement” that “is not intended to be a binding document.”

In 2004, in a “Record of Arrangement” the Department of Defense agreed to provide the following to North Korea to facilitate the JRO’s scheduled for 2005:

  1.  83,136 kg of rice, 10,392 kg of vegetables, 395,055 liters of gasoline, 111,504 liters of diesel, 12,500 liters of kerosene, 12,265 liters of lubricant
  2.  24 new Nissan Patrols and two vans
  3. Replaced 14 Nissan Patrols and two cargo trucks with 24 Mitsubishi Pajeros and two new cargo trucks
  4. Leased 20 sedan, four buses and four truck
  5.  $5,500,000 in cash

In exchange, the North Koreans agreed to provide:

  1. Access to a fax machine
  2. Telephone capable of calling the US
  3. Weekly visits to each field site
  4. Access to continuous communications via telephone and two-way communications with the base camp.

After all of the goods, supplies and cash were delivered, the 2005 JRO’s were cancelled by DoD on May 25, 2005, in the middle of the program. The DPRK retained all of the goods and did not return any of the money.

In the 2011 “Record of Arrangement” DoD agreed to deliver the following to facilitate the 2012 JRO’s:

  1.  30 new sport utility vehicles and two new cargo trucks
  2. Leased 30 sedans, four buses, and four trucks
  3.  72 tons of rice, 8.9 tons of vegetables, 26 tons of meat, 333,204 liters of gasoline, 100,000 liters of diesel fuel, 12,500 liters of kerosene, seven tons of propane, and 8,660 liters of lubricant.
  4.  $5,699,160 in cash

All of these supplies and the cash was delivered to North Korea in February 2012.  On March 28, 2012, DoD canceled the 2012 JRO missions.  North Korea again received the supplies, vehicles and the cash in return for exactly nothing.

The 2004 and 2011 deal provided North Korea with $11,199,160 in cash in exchange for nothing.  There is no doubt that the North Korean junta used this money to buy all kinds supplies.

There is no evidence that anyone at any level, neither the DoD Inspector General (IG) nor any Congressional oversight committee, has ever audited these shipments and payments.  The DoD IG, which extensively audited payments made to Vietnam, has never been instructed to audit the payments to North Korea.

The question now is, how will the Trump administration respond if North Korea demands a “gratitude payment” for the 55 boxes?  Any payment, such a millions in cash as before, would violate U.N. sanctions.

(Note:  Trump made the false statement that “thousands and thousands” of parents of the Korean War missing had asked him to bring home remains from Korea.  Trump made the false statement that North Korea had returned 200 sets of remains.)

New York Times Highlights My RAND Korean War Report

My RAND report, POW/MIA Issues: The Korean War (1994) was quoted extensively in a June 15 NY Times article.  The article is entitled, “Trump-Kim Deal Promises Answers for Families of Korean War M.I.A.s”
Look for the link to the RAND report in the text.  My RAND report was published in 1994.  Here’s the link if you want to jump to it.
The issue concerns the Trump-Kim agreement on the return of the remains of American service members who went missing
during the Korean War.
I circulated a letter to the editor to various newspapers concerning the deal, but no takers.  I’ve attached the letter should you have time/interest.
Let’s hope they notice my new book before 24 years have passed.  The link to this book is here.
The take-away is that we can and should do much better than this.
Here’s the Letter to the Editor:

Dear Editor

The Joint Statement signed by President Trump and Chairman Kim (“Trump and Kim joint statement from the Singapore summit,” WP June 12, 2018) states, “The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.”

There is no evidence that the DPRK has ever accurately identified the remains of any American service member missing from the Korean War. Instead, the DPRK has returned degraded bones that are intensely commingled and have been stored for years. For example, in the early 1990’s, the DPRK provided 208 boxes of remains. In one case, the remains consisted of one partial skull and multiple femurs with a plastic wallet-sized calendar from an insurance agency in New York that the DPRK claimed was the individual’s ID card.
 
As documented in my book (POW/MIA Accounting Volume 1: Searching for Americas Missing Servicemen In The Soviet Union, Palgrave May 2018), the 208 boxes of remains (referred to as the K208 collection) have yielded a minimum number of individuals in excess of 450. Due to DNA analysis and the expertise of the Central Identification Laboratory’s scientists have identified more than 50 missing Americans who have been returned to their families.
 
Beginning in 1996, over 30 joint recovery operations were conducted in the DPRK. The DoD gave the DPRK tens of millions of dollars in cash plus dozens of SUV’s, tons of fresh fish, millions of liters of gasoline and other supplies, all without an agreement or receipts.
 
The DPRK should not be allowed to recover remains on their own. The DPRK’s incompetence and deliberate deception known as “salting” recovery sites are a matter of record. The lesson is that the U.S. recovery teams should be allowed to conduct recovery operations independent of DPRK assistance.
 
There are no missing Americans who are “already identified” to be repatriated. This incoherent statement, which only muddles the issue, reflects a near total ignorance of the role of science in the POW/MIA accounting program and bears no relationship to the factual record of how the Korean War missing are recovered and identified.
 

Sincerely,

—————————-
Paul M. Cole, PhD, MSFS

Kim-Trump Joint Statement on POW/MIA Accounting Is Flawed

The Joint Statement signed by President Trump and Chairman Kim (“Trump and Kim joint statement from the Singapore summit,” WP June 12, 2018) states, “The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.”

 
There is no evidence that the DPRK has ever accurately identified the remains of any American service member missing from the Korean War. Instead, the DPRK has returned degraded bones that are intensely commingled and have been stored for years. For example, in the early 1990’s, the DPRK provided 208 boxes of remains. In one case, the remains consisted of one partial skull and multiple femurs with a plastic wallet-sized calendar from an insurancee agency in New York that the DPRK claimed was the individual’s ID card.
 
As documented in my book (POW/MIA Accounting Volume 1: Searching for Americas Missing Servicemen In The Soviet Union, Palgrave May 2018), the 208 boxes of remains (referred to as the K208 collection) have yielded a minimum number of individuals in excess of 450. Due to DNA analysis and the expertise of the Central Identification Laboratory’s scientists have identified more than 50 missing Americans who have been returned to their families.
 
Beginning in 1996, over 30 joint recovery operations were conducted in the DPRK. The DoD gave the DPRK tens of millions of dollars in cash plus dozens of SUV’s, tons of fresh fish, millions of liters of gasoline and other supplies, all without an agreement or receipts.
 
The DPRK should not be allowed to recover remains on their own. The DPRK’s incompetence and deliberate deception known as “salting” recovery sites are a matter of record. The lesson is that the U.S. recovery teams should be allowed to conduct recovery operations independent of DPRK assistance.
 
There are no missing Americans who are “already identified” to be repatriated. This incoherent statement, which only muddles the issue, reflects a near total ignorance of the role of science in the POW/MIA accounting program and bears no relationship to the factual record of how the Korean War missing are recovered and identified.

Searching for Missing American Servicemen In The Soviet Union — How To Order

POW/MIA Accounting — Volume 1: Searching for Missing American Servicemen In The Soviet Union (Palgrave-Macmillan) was published on April 15, 2018.

To order, click Online Order Volume 1

For the flyer, click Volume 1 Flyer

You can read the front and back material as well as the summary for each chapter.  The book is available as an e-book or hardback.  Individual chapters are  sold separately as well.

Volume 2, entitled J*P*A*C and The Politics of Human Skeletal Identification ihas been accepted for publication.

Why Dirty (Nuclear) Bombs Don’t Work

Why Dirty (Nuclear) Bombs Don’t Work

And

Nuclear Weapons Are Not Useful (Most of the Time)

 

 

By

Paul M Cole, MSFS, PhD

 

 

March 2, 2018

 

 

 

 


Radioisotope Dispersion Device (RDD)

With regard to Radioisotope Dispersion Devices (RDD’s), aka a “dirty bomb,” there is no consensus on the definition of this type of weaponized radioisotope.   The following are two competing definitions:

  • A radiological dispersal device (RDD) would be designed to disperse radioactive material over a large area.[1]
  • A dirty bomb is designed to spread radioactive material and contaminate a small area.[2]

RDD’s are neither weapons of mass destruction, nor are they nuclear explosive devices.  Despite this fact, RDD’s were mistakenly defined as a “weapon of mass destruction” by the U.S. Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 1997.[3]

NDAA FY1997 not only gave RDD’s unwarranted credibility, the mis-categorization of RDD as a weapon of mass destruction weakened the government’s ability to address RDD’s with appropriate policies and plans.

There are many reasons why an RDD should not be classified as a weapon of mass destruction.

Most relevant is the fact that an RDD, which does not produce a nuclear explosion, is an amalgam of conventional explosives (e.g., TNT) and radioactive material that together cannot create a nuclear explosion. The majority of fatalities or injuries that could be potentially caused by an RDD would result from the conventional explosion itself.[4]

There are significant indications that RDD’s are clumsy, ineffective devices that pose a greater threat to those attempting to assemble one.  Radioisotopes pose a great danger to human beings.  An individual attempting to assemble an RDD who mishandled a Cobalt-60 rod, which would cause a lethal dose of radiation within a minute, would probably die within a couple of weeks.[5]

Several nations have investigated the utility of RDD’s.  “According to a UN report, Iraq tested a one-ton radiological bomb in 1987 but gave up on the idea because the radiation levels it generated were insufficient.”[6]

Israel undertook a four-year dirty bomb project with radioisotopes to determine the effectiveness of a dirty bomb attack and how to defend against one. The conclusion was that such an attack would be ineffective and that RDD’s do not pose a substantial danger beyond the conventional blast and the psychological effect.[7]

While large numbers of people in a densely populated area in the close proximity to the detonation of an RDD might become exposed to radiation and require decontamination, few if any will be contaminated to a level that would necessitate medical treatment.

In 1995 Chechen rebels, who buried dynamite attached to a small amount Cesium137[8] in Moscow’s Ismailovsky park, instructed a TV station where to find it.  The Chechens apparently concluded that the RDD’s value as a weapon of intimidation was greater than any political utility that could be derived from the detonation of the device.  There is no evidence, however, that the discovery of the RDD altered Russia’s policy or conduct in favour of the Chechens.  In fact, the revelation that the Chechens were contemplating the use of an RDD may have had the opposite effect by hardening the Russian attitude against the Chechens responsible for planting the RDD.

Detailed scientific studies of RDD’s of various designs using a range of radioisotopes conducted over many years concluded that RDD’s are ineffective radioisotope dispersion devices. The U.S. Sandia National Laboratory “conducted experiments on the aerosolization of radiological dispersal devices […] for more than twenty years. […]  Over 500 explosive experiments were undertaken with more than 20 [radioactive] materials and 85 device geometries to determine the aerosol physics that are representative of what might occur from the detonation of an actual device.”[9]   One important conclusion from this series of experiments was that it is extremely difficult to disperse radioisotopes in an aerosol form of sufficient intensity to cause mass casualties.

Although the public may associated plutonium and enriched uranium with the word radioactive, these TENORM are not effective RDD materials for several fundamental reasons.  TENORM radioisotopes, which are primarily alpha emitters, are costly, cannot be obtained in large amounts, are well-tracked and secured, and are more useful to terrorists in the production of an actual nuclear weapon than being wasted in an RDD. Attachment of plutonium to the skin or hair poses no hazard since the alpha rays cannot penetrate human skin.[10]  Spent nuclear fuel is also a useless material for dirty bombs, primarily due to the fact that is is a very heavy, dense ceramic, thus nearly impossible to disperse in aerosol form.

Fortunately, “dirty bombs” have another inherently self-regulating feature. The greater the dispersal achieved and the more people affected, the lesser the dose of radiation.  For example, a 25 gram CsCl137 source (about 2,200 Ci) is lethal after about one hour of exposure at one meter.  However, the source is not lethal if spread over the one-billion square feet of surface area in 10 by 10 city blocks, which would the area of a large downtown metropolis covered by a good-sized car bomb.[11]

It appears that RDD’s are ineffective unless created on a massive scale.  The explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was the largest RDD event in history.  The power of the Chernobyl explosion was equivalent to “ten tons (10t) of TNT,”[12] or one percent (0.01) of one kiloton, or ten tons of TNT.

Chernobyl released approximately 27 kilograms of Cs137, which was the equivalent of 200-400 times as much radiation as released by either the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs.[13]  The blast contaminated approximately 63,000 square miles (163,169 km2).  A non-state actor does not have the resources to create a RDD event of this magnitude.

There is also evidence that there is little interest among non-state actors to acquire the TENORM required to construct an RDD.

Past experience suggests there has not been a pattern of collecting such sources for the purpose of assembling an RDD. It is important to note that the radioactivity of the combined total of all unrecovered sources over the past 8 years (when corrected for radioactive decay) would not reach the threshold for one high-risk radioactive source.[14]

The task, therefore, is not to abolish the probability of a RDD, which is impossible; rather, the task is to minimize the putative political utility that could be derived by a non-state actor.

The TENORM required to construct an RDD must come from a reactor or a storage facility.  The most critical measure, therefore, is to prevent the illegal introduction of unregulated radioactive material into the hands of those capable of assembling a functioning device.

In the event that prevention fails, the emphasis shifts to mitigation.  The key to mitigating the effects of an RDD explosion is an effective public relations and clean-up strategy.

There is little political utility to be derived by a non-state actor (e.g., a terrorist organization) from the detonation of an RDD.

In contrast to the limited political utility that could be derived from an RDD a great deal of political utility that may be derived by a national government from proper preparation and publicity that will diminish the psychological impact and physical effects of an RDD explosion.

Improvised Nuclear Device (IND)

An Improvised Nuclear Device (IND) is defined as:[15]

  • An illicit nuclear weapon bought, stolen, or otherwise originating from a nuclear state, or a weapon fabricated by a terrorist group from illegally obtained fissile nuclear weapons material that produces a nuclear explosion.
  • Built from the components of a stolen weapon or from scratch using nuclear material (plutonium or highly enriched uranium).
  • Produces same physical and medical effects as nuclear weapon explosion.
  • Results in catastrophic loss of life, destruction of infrastructure, and contamination of a very large area.
  • If nuclear yield is NOT achieved, the result would likely resemble a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD) in which fissile weapons material was dispensed locally.
  • If nuclear yield is achieved, results would resemble a nuclear explosion.
  • Like nuclear explosions, IND explosions may be modeled using a fallout map.

The problems associated with deriving political utility from an IND are almost symmetrical with the problems associated with an RDD.

The technical problems associated with creating an IED are symmetrical with the construction of an RED.  An IED would require 25 to 50 kilograms of HEU or Pu238. However, weapons-grade fuel is not required to build an IND.  Uranium enriched to approximately 20 percent would suffice.[16]

Non-state actors lack the capacity to produce the TENORM required for an IND, thus the only option is to acquire the material from sources controlled by national governments, through theft or some other type of illegal activity.  Obtaining TENORM sufficient for an IND, however, appears to be a difficult task.

“There have been some twenty known cases of theft of plutonium and highly enriched uranium since 1990 and many more of other radioactive materials.”[17]  There have been two decades of illicit trade in radioactive material, yet not one example of an IND.

The task, therefore, is to prevent the transfer of large quantities of TENORM, including that contained in an existing NED.  The regulatory regime required to achieve this objective would be a combination of treating TENORM as a hazardous material with nuclear non-proliferation measures.

Nuclear Explosive Device (NED)

The term “Nuclear Explosive Device” (NED) is defined as “any device, whether assembled or disassembled, that is designed to produce an instantaneous release of an amount of nuclear energy from special nuclear material that is greater than the amount of energy that would be released from the detonation of one pound of trinitrotoluene (TNT).”[18]

All of the empirical evidence points to a similar conclusion, viz., that with a only two exceptions the utility of nuclear weapons as a tool of coercive force or diplomacy has been on the decline since the 1950’s.

  • The first exception was the condition of mutually assured destruction that defined the U.S. – Soviet security relationship during the Cold War.
  • The second exception is the only case where the target of a threat to use nuclear weapons has admitted that the threat altered the target’s behaviour, viz., the PRC during the Sino-Soviet border dispute in the late 1960’s.[19]

Since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons have lost much, if not all, of their value as a nation-state’s ability to manifest force or coercive diplomacy. A 2012 study conducted by a group of former U.S. national-security officials and political leaders chaired by former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General James Cartwright, concluded  emphatically:

No sensible argument has been put forward for using nuclear weapons to solve any of the major 21st century problems we face [including] threats posed by rogue states, failed states, proliferation, regional conflicts, terrorism, cyber warfare, organized crime, drug trafficking, conflict–driven mass migration of refugees, epidemics, or climate change. […] In fact, nuclear weapons have on balance arguably become more a part of the problem than any solution.  (Emphasis added)

In light of this finding, it is not surprising that the number of nuclear weapons has diminished significantly since the end of the Cold War.  Warheads with high yields, including those in the megaton range, have been progressively phased out of U.S. and Russian inventories in favour of smaller weapons.

The fact of the matter is that utility of nuclear weapons as a means to influence or coerce other nations is negligible.

Extraordinary claims required extraordinary proof.

That which is asserted without evidence may be refuted without evidence.

The onus is on those who assert the political utility of radioactive explosive devices (RED) to produce verifiable evidence that demonstrates that nations alter their policies or conduct to accommodate the interests of nations that possess nuclear weapons.

 

 

## END ##

[1] “Fact Sheet on Dirty Bombs,” U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, December 12, 2014  http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/fs-dirty-bombs.html

[2] “Dirty Bomb,” Homeland Security News, (Undated) http://www.nationalterroralert.com/dirtybomb/

[3] SEC. 1403. DEFINITIONS. In this title: (1) The term ‘‘weapon of mass destruction’’ means any weapon or device that is intended, or has the capability, to cause death or serious bodily injury to a significant number of people through the release, dissemination, or impact of— (A) toxic or poisonous chemicals or their precursors; (B) a disease organism; or (C) radiation or radioactivity.

[4] Recall, for example, that of the approximately 129,000 casualties caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the majority (perhaps as high as 75%) of casualties were the result of the blast, not radiation exposure.  “Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Subsequent Weapons Testing,” World Nuclear Association, December 2014.  http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Safety-and-Security/Radiation-and-Health/Hiroshima,-Nagasaki,-and-Subsequent-Weapons-Testing/

[5] A single “rod” or “pencil” of Co60 typically contains 10,000 Ci of radioactivity.  One micro Curie (0.000001, or 1μCi) of Cobalt-60 costs approximately US$81.95.

[6] “Dirty Bombs,” Council on Foreign Relations, October 19, 2006  http://www.cfr.org/weapons-of-mass-destruction/dirty-bombs/p9548

[7] “Haartz Exclusive: Israel Tested ‘Dirty-bomb Cleanup’ in the Desert,” Chaim Levinson, June 8, 2015  http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.660067

[8] The size or weight of a container or shipment does not indicate how much radioactivity is in it.  For example, uranium-238 has 0.00015 curies of radioactivity per pound (0.15 millicuries), while cobalt-60 has nearly 518,000 curies per pound.

[9] “Emergency Response Guidance for the First 48 Hours After the Outdoor Detonation of an Explosive Radiological Dispersal Device,” Stephen V Musolino and Frederick T Harper, Healthy Physics Society, 2006, p 377 http://www.pearceglobalpartners.com/uploads/051106_dirtybomb.pdf

[10] Radiation Hormesis, T D Luckey, CRC Press, 1991,  p 116.  https://books.google.com.sg/books?id=FK7EayQN9dYC&dq=define:+MBq+radiation+of+plutonium&source=gbs_navlinks_s

[11] “Israel Experiments With A Weapon of Mass Disruption,” James Conca, Forbes, June 12, 2015  http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/06/12/israel-experiments-with-dirty-bombs-and-radiation/

[12] “Estimation of Explosion Energy Yield at Chernobyl NPP Accident,” Sergey A Pakhomov and Yuri V Dubasov, Pure and Applied Geophysics, December 16, 2009  http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00024-009-0029-9#/page-1

[13] “Radiation released at Hiroshima or Nagasaki,” http://friendsofchernobylcenters.org

[14] “Fact Sheet on Dirty Bombs,” U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, December 12, 2014  http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/fs-dirty-bombs.html

[15] “Nuclear Detonation: Weapons, Improvised Nuclear Devices,” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Radiation Emergency Medical Management, (undated) http://www.remm.nlm.gov/nuclearexplosion.htm#ind

[16] “The Deadly Arithmetic of Nuclear Proliferation,” John Wohlstetter, The American Spectator, October 1, 2012.  http://spectator.org/articles/34813/deadly-arithmetic-nuclear-proliferation

[17] “Illicit Radiological and Nuclear Trafficking, Smuggling and Security Incidents in the Black Sea Region since the Fall of the Iron Curtain – an Open Source Inventory,” Alex P. Schmid & Charlotte Spencer-Smith, Perspectives on Terrorism, No. 6, 2012  http://www.terrorismanalysts.com/pt/index.php/pot/article/view/schmid-illicit-radiological/html

[18] 22 USCS §6305 (4) Title 22. Foreign Relations and Intercourse; Chapter 72. Nuclear Proliferation Prevention; Sanctions for Nuclear Proliferation

[19] “Nuclear Signaling and China’s Perception about Nuclear Threat: How China Handled Nuclear Threats in the Cold War,” Tong Zhao, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Tech (undated), http://posse.gatech.edu/sites/posse.gatech.edu/files/Nuclear%20Signaling%20and%20China%E2%80%99s%20Perception%20about%20Nuclear%20Threat%20-%20How%20China%20Handled%20Nuclear%20Threats%20in%20the%20Cold%20War.pdf

Speaking Tour to China and Singapore

Delivered four lectures in December 2017:

(1) “Threats and Sanctions,” the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS) Security and Crisis Management program conference on the Security and Investment in the Belt and Road Initiative,

(2) “Think Tanks and Great Power Relations,” Shanghai Global Think Tank Forum,

(3) “Foreign Policymaking In Washington, DC,” Shanghai Institute for American Studies,

(4) “Public Policy Research and Foreign Policy,” Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University

Attended and ASEAN at 50 seminar in Singapore organized by Hans Vriens Partners as part of the Johns Hopkins Nitze School of Advanced International Studies alumni association.