Fox News this morning had an item claiming that the United States is unprepared to respond to a dirty bomb. The item went on to say something on the order of 100,000 people could be affected in the event that a dirty bomb was detonated. I wasn’t able to locate the piece on their website to get the exact quote but believe I’ve captured the gist of the item.
The scenario of a dirty bomb arises every so often and yet there are some serious limitations to it that makes it a less likely scenario than you might think. A “dirty bomb” is not the same as a nuclear weapon. A dirty bomb uses a high explosive to disperse radioactive material. In that the first problem arises, namely assembling a bomb powerful enough to disperse the material over a large area and in a high enough concentration to effect people.
The bomb maker would have to steal enough high explosive, something like ammonium nitrate fuel oil (ANFO), which in and of itself would not be an easy task. Companies that have stockpiles of high explosives have tight security and accountability standards. In the event of a theft, authorities would be immediately alerted. Hiding a large amount of high explosives would not be easy.
Assuming however a group either stole or manufactured enough high explosive material, the next problem is procuring the radioactive material. Yes, there are many stories about weapons grade uranium missing from the former Soviet Union, however smuggling weapons grade uranium isn’t easy due to its telltale radioactive signature. The other problem is the danger posed to the bomb makers in simply handling such highly radioactive material. The slightest accident will result in the individuals receiving lethal doses of radiation. (This is also why attacks with biological or chemical agents are still rare. One misstep and the would-be bomb maker becomes a fatality).
Early detection of weapons grade uranium makes its use unlikely by a small group. Sure a nation-state could sponsor the manufacture of such a device but why not just build a nuclear weapon which is more powerful, accurate and reliable? The small group would probably resort to stealing radioactive material and the most likely candidate is Cesium-137 which is used in irradiators. These machines are used in hospitals, research facilities and food processing plants. Cesium-137 is highly radioactive and has a long half-life. The machines are relatively unprotected and some experts believe the radioactive material could be harvested and used in making a dirty bomb. The problem would be to seize enough material in a coordinated way before authorities would be alerted. The likelihood of being able to do that successfully seems unlikely.
A bomb powerful enough to spread the Cesium-137 would also reduce the concentration of the material and making it less harmful. Depending on the amount of Cesium-137, the explosion itself would cause more harm then the radiation. Weather conditions would also mitigate the effects of a Cesium-137 by winds blowing it away from populated areas.
The real effect of a dirty bomb then becomes the fear and panic its threatened use would incite in the populace. During the first Gulf War, Iraq threatened the use of chemical weapons. The threat would always forces service members into their chemical protective suits. Wearing charcoal lined suits in the desert is unbearably hot and the bulk of the material greatly restricts movement. By causing service members to don their protective gear, the effectiveness of the individuals was drastically reduced without the weapon ever needing to be actually fired or detonated.
The dirty bomb scenario seizes on the same principal; a threat is as good if not better than an actual attack. Citizens and employers will be forced to react to the threat. Disruption of services and the economy would quickly follow. Which brings up an important point, if a dirty bomb was the easy to build and detonate someone would have tried to use one by now. The difficulty in obtaining the necessary materials, the danger in manufacturing it and the unknown factors of weather make this a high-risk proposition for the terrorist with little chance of success. The preferred weapon still is high explosives. High explosives are safe to handle, powerful, and reliable.
While I believe a dirty bomb attack is unlikely based on the above reasons, I do believe Cesium-137 could still be used as a weapon of terror for another reason. As stated before, this material exists in irradiators scattered throughout the country. It only takes a small amount of Cesium-137 to effectively poison someone. Cesium-137 is highly radioactive and a small amount could be used with devastating results. It could be introduced into an office water cooler or food being served at a banquet. Radiation exposure is not something EMS and emergency room personnel routinely train for. Emergency rooms face more traumas as a result of violent crime or accidents. Treating a patient (or more likely patients) who have been exposed to radiation or poisoned with radiation would require very unique treatment protocols. The cost and likelihood of actually needing these protocols (over other ER treatments) may prevent ER personnel from being trained on them.
While the dirty bomb may not be a likely scenario, we do need to insure our radiological instruments are properly secured and accounted for. We already have seen what happens when our food supplies are contaminated by E. Coli, introduction of a radioactive material (which has no smell or taste) could be devastating.