June 03, 2004
Radioactive Dirty Bomb Risk Seen As Growing
The International Atomic Energy Agency claims that the risk of terrorist use of radioactive dirty bombs is growing.
The IAEA's records, which it has released to New Scientist, show a dramatic rise in the level of smuggling of radiological materials, defined as radioactive sources that could be used in dirty bombs but not nuclear bombs.
In 1996 there were just eight of these incidents but last year there were 51.
As more of the world industrlalizes the use of highly radioactive materials such as cobalt-60 for medical purposes will increase and hence there will be radioactive material at more sites around the globe and greater chances for diversion of the material for nefarious purposes. Though in the longer run advances in biotechnology ought to produce better treatments and medical tests that do not involve the use of toxic radiation. For example, a recent study found that a test for a blood protein could be used to eliminate need for as much as 60% of lung angiogram CT scans.
I was curious as to how deadly a dirty bomb is and what could be done to clean-up afterwards. Here’s an FAS Public Interest Report:
It appears there would be few (if any) immediate deaths. The danger is increased long-term chances of cancer. Unless evacuated the nearby residents might have their risk of cancer increased by one in a hundred. The report recommended evacuation of areas where cancer risk increased by one in ten thousand. (EPA standard)
In a time of war evacuation of important urban areas for this level of increased risk seems overly cautious. I hope our government is working on better decontamination technology. Another approach would be to view the long term risk of cancer as being acceptable since it should be a manageable disease within a decade.
My own feeling is that a dirty bomb would be an effective terror weapon only if we allow ourselves to react with panic.
(I’ll save my worry for a crude nuke or a bio-weapon.)
By the way, what are the long-term health effects from the World Trade Center attack? (Smoke, fine particle dust, chemical fumes, etc.) If the residents in the surrounding square miles have one more chance in ten thousand of getting cancer should we evacuate the heart of New York City?
Fly, The economic impact is what you have to consider. Imagine a city where a large portion of the population just decides to move away. You can tell them their reaction is irrational. But what if they just do not care? If terrorists can cause tens or hundreds of billions in economic damage due to huge dislocations of fearful people then they gain a big advantage.
The WTC attack is not as scary to people as a radioactive bomb attack. People are less scared by chemical pollutants than they are by radioactivity.
BTW, Here's a report of a new study that just came out about the pollutants released by the WTC attack:
Film found on windows after 9/11 reveals higher level of pollutants
Pollutant levels in lower Manhattan after Sept. 11 may have been higher than those reported by previous researchers, according to a study by Canadian scientists.
Six weeks after the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, film found on windows within one kilometer (.62 miles) of Ground Zero revealed high levels of PCBs, flame retardants and other organic pollutants. Concentrations of the chemicals were up to 10 times greater than New York City's normal background levels and possibly 100 times higher than surrounding rural areas.
What I found interesting about it is just how much worse NYC is than rural areas. Yet people live there.
Combined with your article, I find this one on Daniel Pipe's blog very worrisome: http://www.danielpipes.org/blog/259
The building boom [of medical facilities in the middle east] looks like a good solution for all involved.
Is it such a good solution if it makes radioactive cobalt more readily available in the middle-east?
“Imagine a city where a large portion of the population just decides to move away.”
Unless there was immediate danger of death, most people wouldn’t have a choice. They couldn’t leave their homes and jobs. Some would leave. Others would move there to take advantage of cheaper housing or job opportunities. Over time the ones who remained would likely joke about the radiation or even take perverse pride in their glowing city. (The danger would be no greater than living in a house with lead paint, or abestos insulation, or radon gas seepage, or harmful mold.)
People in LA laugh off the danger of earthquakes. People in Houston laugh at hurricanes. Few worry about driving on freeways.
“The WTC attack is not as scary to people as a radioactive bomb attack. People are less scared by chemical pollutants than they are by radioactivity.”
Exactly. Our media plays on the public fear to sell news and entertainment. This helps terrorists.
I’d like to see a TV show in which terrorists use a dirty bomb in the heart of a major city, the city is evacuated for a few weeks while crews wash it down. The citizens shower and clean up dust particles. The most severely contaminated have dust particles cleaned from their lungs. Then the city goes about its business. No big deal. Much less death and disruption than caused by a hurricane.