So Where Are All The Dirty Bombs?


I've never been one to fully understand the great fear that many state and federal emergency response managers seem to have over dirty bombs, given the many training exercises that seem to include the threat as the main hazard. This USA Today article talks about the issue of loose and stolen radioactive material.radioactive.jpg

Annual incidents of trafficking and mishandling of nuclear and other radioactive material reported to U.S. intelligence officials have more than doubled since the early 1990s, says the director of domestic nuclear detection at the Department of Homeland Security.Also up: scams in which fake or non-existent nuclear or radioactive material is offered for sale, often online, says Vayl Oxford, nuclear detection director at the department."We sense that people have recognized the value of nuclear material as a useful way of making money," Oxford said. "Nuclear material is becoming a marketable commodity."The incidents tracked by the department, based on its reporting and information from foreign diplomatic and intelligence sources, average about twice the number made public each year by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).Oxford said reports of nuclear and radioactive materials trafficking have ranged from 200 to 250 a year since 2000, up from about 100 a year in the 1990s.
But here's the thing ,Vayl. When you look at the amount of materials stolen or lost (some data are shown in the article's sidebar), we're talking about ounces and a few pounds at best of gamma emitters. No one's tracking the alpha/beta radioactive material out there (polonium anyone?). Still, not exactly enough for an improvised nuclear weapon, maybe enough to scare unknowledgable people.You might have seen the last season's "Sleeper Cell" that only reinforced some of these fears. I enjoyed watching the terrorist cell use americium 241 to "test" their lead-lined cooler container for radiation leaks (except that americium isn't a strong gamma emitter), talk about how exploding an aircraft holding one nuclear fuel rod over Los Angeles would "cover the city in nuclear fallout" (ah, not really), and how the authorities "got a hit from the radioactive sniffers" on the lead-lined cooler on its way to the last target. Yeah, it's only a drama, but I'll bet people believe this stuff. Maybe it was just disinformation for the real terrorists... yeah, that's the ticket.-- Jason Sigger, crossposted at Armchair GeneralistUPDATE 12/29/06 11:36 AM: David Hambling writes in to say: "Also, the UK police are ordering some 12,000 CBR [chemical-biological-radiological] suits -- looks like they're expecting those famous/mythical dirty bombs too."UPDATE 12/29/06 12:05 PM: J here. Great conversation in the comments, especially the cool-headed plugger noting that "dirty bombs" are hazards, not life-threatening events. Many of the comments seem to go to the question of "what's your point?" Without getting too academic (hey, I'm not the ArmsControlWonk, after all), my point is simply this. While there's lots of radioactive hazards out there, the really bad ones aren't being moved in great quantities to cause a mass casualty incident. Given that "dirty bombs" of whatever flavor - alpha, beta, gamma - are largely more of a clean-up job, and while costly to clean up, government goes on. The anthrax letters didn't shut down the USPS, but it did slow things down on the east coast. The polonium poisoning didn't shut down Heathrow Airport for a minute.They're hazards, they are low-probability events, they're not mass casualty events. Given that basis, what's the appropriate federal response? I suggest that it is not to put rad detectors in every port and every border crossing into the United States and within every major metropolitan area, as DHS's DNDO has suggested (which would cost billions of dollars to implement plus annual sustainment and training costs). The appropriate response is to lock down the bad rads (cesium, uranium, and plutonium), get the terrorists before they attack, and be prepared (like our UK brethern) to clean it up if it happens. Simple. Smart. Efficient. But not the course of action being implemented by the government.
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