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How much of a threat is a dirty bomb?
Posted by: McQ on Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A new study says it's definitely a threat, and, for the most part, a pretty easy device to fashion and use:
“The technical capability required to construct and use a simple RDD is practically trivial, compared to that of a nuclear explosive device or even most chemical or biological weapons,” the CSIS study says.

A homemade radiological weapon could consist of a conventional explosive laced with radioactive material commonly found at universities, medical and research laboratories or industrial sites.

Several isotopes used in applications including cancer treatment and industrial radiography have been identified as possible sources. However, CSIS notes, much would depend on the material's half-life, the amount of radioactivity present, the portability of the source and the ease with which it could be dispersed.

Experts say such an explosion, while claiming few initial casualties, could spread radiation over a wide area, contaminating several city blocks, sowing panic and wreaking economic havoc.
For those wondering, "RDD" is an acronym for "Radiological Dispersal Device". A "dirty bomb" isn't actually a nuclear device but a conventional bomb (or device) which could disperse nuclear material. However as Stratfor notes, that's not the only way radiological material can be dispersed:
This dispersal can be achieved through such means as hiding a highly radioactive source in a public place or by dumping a vial of powdered radioactive material from a tall building. In more complex but still relatively simple devices, material can be scattered by an explosive charge — a dirty bomb — or by dissolving it in water.
It certainly doesn't require "rocket science". A recent example is the Litvinenko assassination using polonium-210. In effect, Litvienko ended up being the RDD given the fact that his radiation poisoning took a few days to manifest itself.

A test run?

But Stratfor (subscription required) contests the media hype about RDDs. They're not as easy to construct or use as many would believe because the key to their effectiveness is good dispersal. One of those methods is what is known as a "smoky bomb" where the concept is to produce an smoky explosion in which the radioactive material is carried by the smoke and inhaled by the intended victims. But in reality it is very difficult to achieve lethal doses in those type scenarios:
In sufficiently high concentrations, this smoke could produce acute radiation poisoning; in smaller doses, it could cause cancer and other long-term health problems. Getting the radioactivity into the victim's body via the lungs would mean that alpha radiation (which does not have much penetration power) could be used in place of more-penetrating gamma radiation — which can affect people from outside their bodies. Alpha radiation sources are not as tightly controlled as gamma radiation sources, and many standard radiation detectors cannot see alpha radiation, meaning first responders might not recognize the threat.

Such a weapon would be more likely to take the form of an improvised incendiary device (IID) than an improvised explosive device (IED), since the IID would create more smoke to transport the radioactive particles. The force of an explosive device would tend to disperse the smoke and radiation farther and faster. An IID-based weapon would not be literally a smoky "bomb," but rather a smoke-emitting RDD.

At the tactical level, terrorists who want to employ smoke to disperse radioactive particles run into many of the same obstacles as do terrorists seeking to disperse deadly chemicals such as hydrogen cyanide gas. By its very nature, smoke rises and disperses, which could be helpful in spreading radioactive particles. However, it is difficult to achieve concentrations of radioactive smoke lethal enough to cause immediate casualties unless such a device is used in an enclosed area, such as a subway car or a building. Even in enclosed spaces, the historical examples of Aum Shinrikyo's many chemical weapons attacks demonstrate that it is difficult to obtain deadly concentrations of even very lethal substances. Outdoors, factors such as wind, precipitation and terrain could have a dramatic effect on the smoke generated by such a device, as could the ventilation and sprinkler systems found inside buildings — systems designed to protect occupants from smoke and fire.

This is the same problem chemical and biological weapons suffer. Factors for their use have to be almost perfect to get the proper dispersal of lethal concentrations. Stratfor uses, as an example, the worst nuclear accident the world has suffered: Chernobyl.
The Chernobyl accident reportedly released between 50 million and 250 million curies of radiation. That radiation was composed of more than 40 different radionuclides, including cesium-137, iodine-131, strontium-90 and plutonium-241 — much of it carried in the smoke that billowed from the fire that raged in the reactor. One curie is the equivalent of one gram of radium, so the accident resulted in the release of the equivalent of between 50 million and 250 million grams of radium (approximately 110,000 pounds to 551,000 pounds) — far more than any aspiring dirty bomber could ever hope to incorporate into a device. In total, more than 55,000 square miles were contaminated with more than 1 curie of cesium-137, an especially small, particulate radioisotope.

However, despite this massive release of radiation — including alpha, beta and gamma emitters — the accident claimed only about 31 lives due to acute radiation exposure (the numbers are disputed; some sources say 30, others say 32). Many other victims reportedly have died from the long-term effects of radiation exposure, such as various types cancer, but the initial death toll was relatively small. While Chernobyl itself is somewhat isolated, the town of Pripyat, which was built especially for Chernobyl employees, had 45,000 residents at the time of the accident and was located only four kilometers from the reactor. There were a total of 76 settlements within a 30-kilometer radius of the reactor, and more than 350,000 people had to be evacuated and resettled due to radiation contamination. Nevertheless, even Chernobyl did not produce the immediate mass casualties of the 9/11 attack or the Madrid train bombings.
Obviously this doesn't mean RDDs aren't a threat, but that threat should be given context when considered and you should understand that while the device may not be that difficult to construct or use, having the proper conditions for a mass casualty scenario are, otoh, very difficult to achieve in most cases given the large number of variables which can negatively effect proper dispersal.

Stratfor's conclusion:
The possibility of an RDD attack, smoke-emitting or otherwise, once again underscores the importance of contingency planning — especially for those who live or work near potential targets or in a symbolic city like New York, London or Washington. In the case of an RDD attack, it will be important to stay calm. Panic, as previously noted, potentially could kill more people than the device.

People caught in close proximity to the detonation site obviously should avoid breathing in the smoke, which can be a killer in any ordinary fire or bombing. Avoiding the smoke can best be accomplished by getting as low as possible and leaving the area as quickly (and as calmly) as possible. A commercially available smoke hood could aid greatly in an escape from the scene of an RDD attack and could literally be the difference between life and death in such a situation. A small flashlight also could prove invaluable.

The three most important things to remember about protecting oneself from radiation are time, distance and shielding. That means minimizing the time of exposure and maximizing the distance and the shielding between oneself and the radiation source.
Neither of the items listed are that expensive or difficult to carry in a briefcase. But if you ride the subways in any of the "symbolic cities" Stratfor notes, it may be a worthwhile investment. It reminds me of all the photos of the people in WWII London carrying their gas mask bags as they went about their daily routine.

War, afterall, is war.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

The beauty of the Dirty Bomb is not its ACTUAL Effect. NO ONE need die in the attack. It’s the acronym soup effect that is important...CNN, NBC, EPA, DHS, ATLA, NAS, and NIH all get involved, for years...There will months of "remediation"-whether it’s necessary of not- law suits, new stories.

I call it letting the System do it’s job for you. The actual effect can be darn near nil, but all the "Buzz" will do the damage you need. Think about Wall Street or LA’s Waste Water Treatment Faciliy being hit by a small Dirty Bomb and what the media, lawyers, and bureuacrats would do in the aftermath and the effects of THEM on the economy and body politic.
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
The only thing we really need to fear is a nuke. Forget dirty bombs. Forget airliners. The damage a nuke does is many orders of magnitude greater than any of these other weapons. a few hundred or even a few thousand dead is something that, although painful and tragic, will not stop our economy, will not destroy our world. A nuke in manhattan would.

That’s why we need to scan EVERY cargo container that comes into this country for radiation. For those who say it can’t be done or that it’s too expensive, I promise you we could have spent the money we spent in Iraq to accomplish this task, and we’d be much safer for it.
Written By: ME
URL: http://
I’m not up on the technology as some, but I have wonder often enough if the supposedly dud test in NoKo, wasn’t in fact the test of a dirty bomb, designed to be so. It would explain quite a bit.
Written By: Bithead
URL: http://
The Stratfor authors minimize the damage from Chernobyl to an amazing extent, going so far as to ignore entirely UN estimates that thousands of deaths, and even more permanent disfigurements and crippling birth defects, were ultimately caused by the radiation leakage. Not to mention the financial and social capital the USSR had to expend in cleanup, which greatly contributed to its downfall a few years later.

Furthermore, the real danger from any WMD doesn’t come from it’s physical damage. The Pentagon and Wall Street were up almost immediately after 9/11 for instance (the Pentagon actually didn’t even shut down). The real damage comes from civilian panic, the complete discrediting of the government (which, no matter how popular the prospect may be in libertarian circles, would result in absolute chaos), and investor flight.

Stratfor, at least from your excerpts here, badly mangled these two aspects.
Written By: Josh
"It’s the acronym soup effect that is important...CNN, NBC, EPA, DHS, ATLA, NAS, and NIH all get involved, for years..."

We can call it the Bureaucracy Bomb. Diabolical and fiendish, and cerainly violating the laws of war. The mind boggles at the possibilities. Why, considering the lengths we go to to enforce the wearing of seat belts, just think what they would do to enforce the carrying of personal protective equipment. Just the costs of developing and distributing suitable equipment would be astronomical. Not to mention the mandatory training, licensing, and annual inspections.
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
I used to have an office with a window overlooking an airport in Florida. What I was able to see from this vantage point was disturbing.

200,000 lb and larger cargo jets taking off and landing with a tiny fraction of the security afforded passenger liners.

These planes could be hijacked, and it is the method I fear most because of how easy it would be for terrorists to fly a fully fueled cargo jet into the containment building of one or more of the 100 nuclear reactors around the country.

If terrorists successfully attacked just one of the 100+ reactors in the US, the losses could reach well beyond 100,000 deaths from fallout radiation poisoning and thousands of homes that must be evacuated.

Written By: Captin Sarcastic
URL: http://
That’s why we need to scan EVERY cargo container that comes into this country for radiation.

Fine. Where will you do the cargo container scan? If the ship’s already in the harbor, you’re screwed.
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
200,000 lb and larger cargo jets taking off and landing with a tiny fraction of the security afforded passenger liners.
And how do you know that assertion to be true?
Written By: Mark A. Flacy
URL: http://
"That’s why we need to scan EVERY cargo container that comes into this country for radiation"

We could contract(heh) this out to the Mafia, since they already do a pretty good job of scanning cargo containers for valuables.
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
200,000 lb and larger cargo jets taking off and landing with a tiny fraction of the security afforded passenger liners.
And how do you know that assertion to be true?
Fairly simple, have YOU ever been screend when flying via UPS? Thought not Mr. Smartie-Pants....
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
200,000 lb and larger cargo jets taking off and landing with a tiny fraction of the security afforded passenger liners.
And how do you know that assertion to be true?
Fairly simple, have YOU ever been screend when flying via UPS? Thought not Mr. Smartie-Pants....
That’s a good answer, and there are two more, one is empirical, the budget for cargo security is a fraction of that of passenger security, even though far more parcels are moved than people.

The other answer is far more cause for concern. The cargo area of this airport at least, and at least two others that I am aware of, are unprotected from people simply walking on to the tarmac. You can park in front of a cargo carriers hangar, walk in and through (the office section, not the cargo storage and docking area), right out to the waiting cargo planes. I know this because I was interested in a HU-16 Grumman Albatross (Jimmy Buffett’s plane) that was sitting on the tarmac and I wanted to take a closer look at it. I walked through a cargo carriers hangar and out to the tarmac, right by a DC9 that was at that moment loading freight, and over to the Hemisphere Dancer.

Perhaps if I was wearing a turban and waving a rifle I might have been noticed.

That personal experience is why I fear that the most likely detonation of a dirty bobm with include a cargo plane and a nuclear reactor. However, with radioactive material and a fuel laden plane alone, a significant dirty detonation could occur in the center of a high populace area.

I agree with better screening, but for the most part, the implements of destruction are already here, it is people willing and capable of using them we need to be prepared for.

Written By: Captin Sarcastic
URL: http://
But Captin, did you GET ON THE PLANE? UPS has an advantage over TWA, when Moamet gets on Flight 93, he has a ticket and has a RIGHT to be there. Moamet can’t very well pass himself off on the UPS flight from O’Hare to SFO, can he? "Uh what are you doing here?" "Eeees thees not the Flight to Miami? Oh Darn..." So it’s less of a problem for cargo flights AND most cargo flight crews, well flight crews in general are not new-hires from Air University but USN/USAF veterans, so it’s not likely that Al-Qaeda is planting "Sleeper Cells" at UPS.

To me Cargo Safety is much less a problem than passenger flight or air port security in general.
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
But Captin, did you GET ON THE PLANE?
No, because I was not interested in getting on the plane, if I were, I could have walked right into the cockpit, there was no one to stop me.

Do you get this?

You can go and walk on to a cargo jet with whatever arms you want to arm your self with. From there, you would need only the ability to take off, fly, and probably 10 minutes before the fighters get to you if you chose your airport well.

Don’t take my word for it, but don’t dismiss it out of argumentativeness either, go look for yourself. Security for air cargo lines is inconsequential.


Written By: Captin Sarcastic
URL: http://
Having worked with radiological materials for quite a few years, I won’t go into the "how to" aspects. However, I will say this; for a society that is becoming afraid of its own shadow, so to speak, I would see the residual radioactive material after a radiological attack causing the government to prevent people from living or even working in such an area. Higher levels of background radiation do present long term dangers, but more importantly, people seem to panic at the thought of even small increases in radiation levels. Many radioactive materials are water soluble, so they would leach into anything which is porous or into inaccessible areas after rainfall. Concrete even becomes contaminated. So the real danger, after the initial incident, is economic dislocation, public panic and long term abandonment of areas that were contaminated. Picture Manhattan’s financial district declared off limits and abandoned. In the good old days, the bad guys always had to consider their escape path; not anymore in this war that is not perceived as a war.
Written By: AMR
URL: http://
Hate to say it, but any plane equipped with an autopilot and a GPS can be turned into a fairly effective cruise missile.
Written By: SDN
URL: http://
Personally I don’t think they even have to set off a dirty bomb to cause panic.

Think about it. Suppose they threw a couple of lines on a web page and made a few phone calls they knew would be intercepted stating that they dumped some form of alpha radioactive material in the ventilation system at some elementary school.

The school would be evacuated, the acronyms would be called in and it would probably be the top headline on CNN. and every parent in America would be paronoid to send their child to school.
Written By: Mac
URL: http://

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