Dirty bomb: No reason to be afraid

Stockpile food, get a pocket radio, hoard batteries, and find an easily sealed place in your apartment. Make a plan to flee the metropolis. If there is an inland waterway, consider using a skiff or a kayak because roads will be clogged.

Terrorists are about to strike, and according to our sweating, fleshy national security men advising Congress, a dirty bomb is in their grasp.

With its payload of radioactive gunk, the dirty bomb has been advertised by the government as so easy to make that even an American idiot jailbird like Jose Padilla was a nuclear-mad threat.

But like other phantoms from the war on terror, dirty bombs have never been used in action. In happier times, Iraq was said to have built and tested them, without success. That nation learned it was very hard to make radiation levels originating from dispersed radioisotopes dangerous in a politically or militarily significant way.

The Chechens buried explosives with radioactive cesium in Moscow in 1995 and alerted the news media rather than setting them off.

The essential obstacle facing potential makers of dirty bombs is that the radioactive "dirt" is... radioactive.

A small quantity of cobalt-60, for instance, seems a cinch to steal from a food irradiating plant or a cancer treatment facility until you read the fine print. Concentrated in a bomb component and packing an intense amount of radioactivity, the ingredients would radiate more than enough to guarantee death or maiming for terrorists who handle them.

The record of those who have unwittingly or unskillfully handled discarded metallic radioactive sources– items that have been indicated as candidate materials for dirty bombs– is gruesome. In 1987, Brazilian scavengers were able to get into a canister of radioactive powdered cesium. Fifty four people exposed to the cesium were hospitalized. Nineteen of these suffered from radiation-induced burns. There were four fatalities.

In 2000, two died and five became seriously ill when an Egyptian farmer stumbled upon a very small piece of radioactive cobalt and took it home. Milling any radioactive material of this nature for even greater dispersion would magnify the risk to the tinkerers.

For the rest of us, there's less reason to fear than we've been led to believe. Blown into pieces and some dust, a small radioactive source would pose little immediate danger in the way of health effects. And scientists, when bedeviled sufficiently or chagrined by prior claims of doom, can be overheard saying that a dirty bomb would cause "few if any radiation deaths." Casualties would be among those caught directly by the bang, making one wonder why the government is advocating preparedness measures that appear cut-and-pasted from Cold War civil defense tomes about atom bombs minus the take-cover-under-the-table advice.

The dirty bomb is also said to be terrible because radio-contamination would cause property values to plummet. This is difficult to take seriously in a nation already significantly fouled by ineradicable chemical waste.

Indeed, the power of this terrorist weapon stems primarily from our leaders' successful PR campaign to make it seem horrifying. One assumes they're harping on the horror either out of lack of backbone in the face of a vague menace or because it keeps a phlegm-lacking populace convinced there is a need for total war.

For war profiteers, the dirty bomb is a sales tool. Pushers of potassium iodide have attached their ads to Google searches for "dirty bomb," even though the pellets only work for radioactive iodine– a fission product that would not come from such a device.

The dirty bomb bogeyman has also provided leeway for the government and Department of Defense to rationalize developing the technology of radiation dispersal. This has resulted in very secretive testing of dirty bomb science in New Mexico and the Ural Mountains in Russia, the latter being a particularly convenient location because it is well beyond the reach of any citizen watchdog groups or Congressional investigation.

In order to understand the terrorist threat of the dirty bomb, the Department of Defense alleges, it must be allowed to experiment with them. However, no terrorist groups have the scientific talent, money, or vast resources of the Pentagon and the exotic weapons industry, rendering any information gained from the making and testing of secret dirty bombs of questionable value in the determination of whether groups like al Qaeda could do the same.

Nevertheless, dirty bomb research advances. One of the findings, passed on by a U.S. official as proof of the benefit of the program, is that radioactive cesium chloride powder would be the best choice for inclusion in a dirty bomb because it is the easiest to spread by explosion. However, the information is not remarkable. Scientists unconnected to the government have already said the same in public studies without having to indulge in actually designing the things we are supposed to fear.

George Smith is editor of the Crypt Newsletter, an electronic publication on national security, and author of The Virus Creation Labs, a book on the origins of malicious software. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Business Week Online, and in the Village Voice (where this essay first appeared, earlier this month.)