If you are interested in political and national security world affairs, you might have stumbled over the term “CBRN threat” a few times. Many important political institutions, such as the EU, the UN, or NATO report on the topic and invest much money in CBRN centres of excellence; but what does this term actually mean? CBRN is an abbreviation for “chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear” as different kinds of threats to animals, vegetation, equipment, humans, economies, and political stability. These CBRN threats can be caused intentionally or accidentally by humans but they may also occur naturally. To speak of a so-called CBRN event endangering safety and security, CBRN materials or agents must be involved as well as a vector spreading them (Erasmus University Rotterdam [EUR], 2020). In this article, I will provide you with some detailed explanations about each kind of threat including examples and what the CBRN centres of excellence do.
Warning: Corrosive Substantives - Chemical
The “C” refers to chemical agents causing toxicological, adverse effects on plants, animals, or people. These agents may occur as vapours, liquids, aerosol gases, or solids (EUR, 2020). An example of an accidentally caused chemical threat is the explosion of the oil platform Deepwater Horizon in 2010 which killed 11 workers. Moreover, 800 million litres of oil spilt out of the drilling hole for 87 days, and huge amounts of the maritime life in the Gulf of Mexico, where the platform was located, were contaminated with oil (Lörchner, 2020). On the contrary, although the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, 2022), they are still intentionally used to cause harm. In 2013, the Syrian dictator Assad released the nerve gas Sarin in Damascus which killed around 1,400 civilians including many children (US Department of State, 2022). Although chemical threats seem to be very present, only 60 existing chemical compounds out of several hundred thousand are suitable for weaponization.
Warning: Infectious Disease - Biological
Biological threats refer to bacterial, viral, fungal, or parasitic organisms causing diseases or deaths of crops, livestock, or people. The widespread fear of biological attacks is mainly triggered by the fact that dangerous biological agents can be widely spread before they are identified or detected because humans unintentionally infect each other by long-lasting secondary and tertiary transmissions (EUR, 2020). A simple example of a naturally occurring biological threat is the spread of the covid-19 virus by aerosols. Infected patients release the virus into the air by sneezing or coughing, and healthy people breathe it in. Moreover, the fear of biological weapons inspired many films, for instance, the James Bond movie “No Time to Die” (2021). James Bond must prevent the villain from releasing the deadly pathogen Obruchev stolen from a secret government laboratory. However, there are also examples of real-life biological warfare such as Japan developing a whole biological weapons program to fight China in the second world war. Japanese armies poisoned Chinese water wells with cholera and typhus pathogens as well as distributed plague-infested fleas by planes over cities, along roads, and in rice fields (Frischknecht, 2003).
Warning: Contaminated Area - Radiological
Radiological threats refer to dangerous radioactive materials being released into the environment, and the contamination is especially difficult, lengthy, and costly to remediate. Moreover, radiation can cause widespread fear and panic among a population if citizens believe to be exposed to a threat they cannot see or feel but which can cause serious health issues over years leading to a painful death. These radiological threats can develop accidentally anywhere where radioactive isotopes are transported, stored, or used (EUR, 2020). For instance, medical laboratories use radioisotopes to treat cancer and other chronic diseases (International Atomic Energy Agency, 2022), and incorrect use of the isotopes can cause the scientists working in the laboratory to be exposed to radiation. There is not much known about incidents where radiation has been used with criminal intent. The most likely scenario would be the placement of a highly radioactive source in public or the application of so-called dirty bombs (EUR, 2020). These bombs contain conventional explosives, such as dynamite, combined with liquid, solid, or gaseous radioactive materials. Therefore, a conventional explosive device is manipulated to disperse radioactive material through an explosion and contaminate a relatively small area (New York State Department of Health, n.d.).
Warning: Atomic Bombs - Nuclear
Nuclear exposure results from nuclear fission chain reactions, as used in atomic bombs, or a combination of nuclear fission and fusion reactions, as used in hydrogen bombs. If certain atoms, for instance, uranium 235 or plutonium, are separated in an uncontrolled way, an initial nuclear reaction leads to intense light, a wave of impact, and thermal radiation (EUR, 2020). The probably most widely known example is the nuclear accident of Fukushima. The Japanese nuclear power plant experienced a reactor meltdown caused by an earthquake and a Tsunami resulting in several ten thousand residents being displaced and suffering from radiological contamination (World Nuclear Association, 2022). Contrary, nuclear power can also be intentionally used as a weapon. During the second world war, the USA executed the only attack to date with nuclear bombs by dropping them on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The explosions killed around 120,000 people and many more died later due to exposure to radiation (History, 2022). Only nine countries have nuclear weapons worldwide, and these countries are the USA, China, France, the UK, Pakistan, India, Israel, Russia, and North Korea (World Population Review, 2022). It is unlikely that non-state actors such as terrorist groups can build nuclear weapons as they lack both the instructions and means as well as the material like plutonium or uranium. However, fissile material, such as natural uranium, could theoretically be used to build improvised nuclear devices. These devices would have the effect of a small nuclear bomb, and even if the critical mass for a self-sustained nuclear reaction is not reached during the explosion, an enormous conventional explosion can nevertheless cause a dangerous radiological fallout (EUR, 2020).
There is an increasing global fear, especially after 9/11, that terrorists will use CBRN weapons, and this has caused international cooperation to increase rapidly in this field of security. In 2010 the EU started a program to build CBRN centres of excellence in 56 countries worldwide. These centres aim to raise awareness of CBRN threats, promote good practices of countries developing countermeasures, establish standard operating procedures and training as organizational strategies against CBRN threats, and teach relevant international law. To conclude, “the deeper the knowledge of the subject, the higher the resilience of the system, the lesser the feeling of fear” (EUR, 2020).
Erasmus University Rotterdam. (2020). Understanding chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats (CBRN). Erasmus University Rotterdam. Retrieved 2022, from https://www.coursera.org/learn/international-security-management/lecture/fSUQe/understanding-chemical-biological-radiological-and-nuclear-threats-cbrn
Frischknecht, F. (2003). The history of biological warfare. EMBO reports, 4(1), 47-52. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1326439/
History.com Editors (2009, November 18). Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. History.com. Retrieved September 13, 2022, from https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/bombing-of-hiroshima-and-nagasaki
International Atomic Energy Agency. (n.d.). Radioisotope Products and Radiation Technology Section. Retrieved from https://www.iaea.org/about/radioisotope-products-and-radiation-technology-section
Loerchner, J. (2020, April). Das Höllen-Bohrloch. SPIEGEL. Retrieved from https://www.spiegel.de/geschichte/deepwater-horizon-explosion-2010-das-hoellen-bohrloch-a-1ba2a13e-6774-4fff-ba1e-9acc3c0b590e
New York State Department of Health. (n.d.). Dirty Bombs. Retrieved from https://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/emergency/dirty_bombs.htm
Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. (2022). Chemical Weapons Convention [website article]. Retrieved from https://www.opcw.org/chemical-weapons-convention
Price, N. (2021). Ninth Anniversary of the Ghouta, Syria Chemical Weapons Attack [Press Release]. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/ninth-anniversary-of-the-ghouta-syria-chemical-weapons-attack/
World Nuclear Association. (2022). Fukushima Daiichi Accident. Retrieved from https://world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/fukushima-daiichi-accident.aspx
World Population Review. (2022). Nuclear Weapons by Country 2022. Retrieved from https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/nuclear-weapons-by-country