Local News

Springer Journal: Just How Dirty Is The Dirty Bomb?

Posted June 20, 2002 9:20 a.m. EDT

— The recent high profile arrest and incarceration of an American citizen, Jose Padilla, has renewed our interest in the dirty bomb theory.

A dirty bomb is essentially a conventional bomb that includes radioactive material. For example, a terrorist could produce a dynamite explosive laced with some radioactive material to create a dirty bomb that would release radiation contamination. When the bomb is detonated it scatters airborne dust -- or dirt, albeit radioactive dirt.

Just how dirty and how dangerous is the so-called "Dirty Bomb?" Simply put, it all depends on the size of the bomb and your proximity to the point of the detonation.

A dirty bomb could be packaged in something as small a lunch pail or backpack, or something much larger such as one that may be encased in a truck or van. Obviously, the larger the bomb, the greater the explosive device and the greater potential for blast damage and larger amounts of radioactive materials being released into the atmosphere.

The dangers inherent in the radioactive "dirt" are sensitive to the location of the blast. Some of the variables would include whether it was detonated within the confines of a city block, or in a more open area ... the direction and velocity of any wind ... the density of the atmosphere, etc.

When we hear the word "radioactive" we become very, very concerned. Interestingly, that is exactly what the terrorist wants us to do. The psychology, the fear of a dirty bomb, may just be the greatest threat to each of us.

Certainly, those in the immediate vicinity of an exploded dirty bomb would be in grave danger. But that danger comes more from the explosives and the blast than it does from the radioactive material. Most deaths and serious injuries would be a consequence of being too close to the immediate vicinity of the explosion.

Even with a larger bomb, there is less danger from the radiation several city blocks away ... or a mile away in a more open area ... than we may envision. Radiation particles tend to be small and tend to dissipate rather quickly. That's the good news. The bad news is that you may not know that a "dirty" bomb had been exploded within a radius of concern to you.

You would hear and experience the bomb blast. You would witness the devastation of that bomb. But for most surviving observers it would not be recognized as a "dirty" bomb. Our senses do not detect radiation as such. We can't see it ... we can't feel it ... we can't touch it ... we can't hear it or smell it. Ergo, we would sense that a conventional bomb had been exploded.

Should we be concerned about not "recognizing" that a dirty bomb, rather than a conventional bomb, was exploded in close proximity to our location? Yes, we should be concerned.

If we really knew a dirty bomb had been exploded, there are several things we should try to remember. Even though the radiation levels may be small, we should remain indoors, try to cleanse ourselves, discard as much of our clothing as practicable, drink only bottled water, and if caught in the open try to get upwind. We should not panic!

The irony of this whole dirty bomb issue is that the radioactive materials are of greater danger to the fabricator (read: terrorist) than to the innocent and unsuspecting public that may be in the proximity of the explosion.

Obtaining radioactive material is not all that difficult. However, assembling the bomb is difficult and dangerous. Transporting the bomb is equally dangerous and requires some sort of lead or heavy metal container. The radioactive rod needed for the dirty bomb needs some sort of shielding. Careful attention to detail is critical. Ergo, the potential bomb maker is assuming some heavy risks. Of course, that doesn't mean much to a willing and committed suicide bomber.

Certainly, we must be gravely concerned about dirty bombs ... but we also need to be concerned about the more conventional bombs in the hands of the terrorists. To reiterate, the blast effects of the bomb ... any bomb ... will cause the greatest amount of death and destruction. The effects of radiation should be minimal. (Having said that, don't confuse the radiation effects of a man pack dirty bomb with the much more horrific devastation of a nuclear weapon.)

Dirty bombs are dirty ... they are unconventional ... they will kill, maim and destroy, but it may just be that one of the greatest threats is the psychological threat. It may be comforting to know that at least one expert has suggested that if there had been five pounds of radioactive material in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, it is possible that no additional deaths would have occurred.

A public that understands the true potential of a relatively small dirty bomb should help reduce the psychological impact of this nasty weapon in the terrorist's toolbox.