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Dirty Bomb Arrest

June 10, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: More now from Randall Larsen, Director of the Institute for Homeland Security at Anser Corporation. He has conducted exercises for local, state, and the federal government involving radiological explosive devices. And Robert Nelson, a physicist and a member of the research staff at Princeton University’s program on science and global security.

Mr. Nelson, what is the, Mr. Larsen, what is the most important thing we need to know about these dirty bombs?

RANDALL LARSEN: I would say there are three things we need to know about them. When you look at the weapons we’re going to face in the 21st century in our homeland– chemical, nuclear, biological, radiological– radiological is the more likely one to do. I don’t have a technical background, but I can do it. All I have to do is go to a hospital and steal some Cesium 137 or Cobalt 60, which by the way al-Qaida – the British officers found al-Qaida had some Cobalt 60. It’s used in nuclear treatment facilities. I take that and conventional explosions, TNT or something Timothy McVeigh used with diesel fuel and fertilizer and make a bomb and disburse it. So it’s easier to do than most of the weapons we’re concerned about.

The second most important thing is that it will cause the fewest number of casualties. It’s not a high threat to human beings. It will cause some psychological damage and economic impact, which could be significant in some cases.

And the third important point the people need to know is the United States federal government is best prepared for this sort of weapon of any other, certainly more prepared for this than a biological weapon because we’ve had 50 years; some of our best scientists working in our laboratories are prepared to deploy at a moment’s notice to one of these scenes. We so we’re best at preventing it, at responding to it and the long-term consequence management. Those are part of the three most important things.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let’s go through all three of these things. Now, Professor Nelson, would you agree with Mr. Larsen about how easy these things are to construct? Give us specifics about how you would do this.

ROBERT NELSON: Well, I don’t want to go into specific details about how to actually construct one of these things, but it is true that there’s a tremendous number of these materials available. Tens of thousands of facilities use radioactive material from cancer clinics to industrial research laboratories to material that’s used on the Princeton University campus.

It’s easily accessible and could be used to produce a dirty bomb. It’s also true, however, that the radiation effects from one of these things would be very minimal. It would be, in fact, very difficult to kill or even make someone sick with a dirty bomb. What could be done, however, is produce a tremendous amount of severe economic impact because the cleanup costs down to EPA standards would be very expensive and could require evacuation of a large section of a major metropolitan area.

JIM LEHRER: It would also be very scary psychologically, too.

ROBERT NELSON: Certainly the panic is one of the major issues. As somebody else has already said, the issue is more about heart attacks than about radioactive fallout. In the few cases where there have been radiological accidents one scenario is that people tend to panic and stream into hospitals and to clinics fearing that they’ve been exposed to radiation and they can overwhelm the medical system.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go back to the construction. I’m not going to ask you to go through, I didn’t mean to suggest that I was asking you to tell us how to make one.


JIM LEHRER: We’ve heard, you heard on the clip, the news clips, that this man had been allegedly trained in Pakistan to do it. Does it require a lot of training? Is it a specialist’s job?

ROBERT NELSON: Absolutely not. Again, this is not a nuclear weapon, it’s not requiring the very sophisticated devices required to produce a nuclear explosion. It’s simply taking nuclear material that is radioactive and embedding it in a conventional high explosive that’s used to distribute it over as wide an area as possible.

JIM LEHRER: But it could be any size, then. It could be put in a suitcase? It could be in a briefcase?

ROBERT NELSON: It could be put in a suitcase. It could be in a truck bomb, you could imagine a large variety of scenarios. And it doesn’t even have to be dispersed in an explosion. It could be sprayed over a large area.

JIM LEHRER: Has there ever been an incident where one of these things have been used as a bomb?

ROBERT NELSON: Not as a bomb. There have been accidents and there was one terrorist incident in Moscow where the Chechen rebels left the Cesium 137 source beneath a park bench and they eventually tipped off television reporters that it was there and it didn’t actually kill anybody. In one accident in Brazil in 1988 there were some scavengers that got ahold of a Cesium 137 source from a medical facility, an abandoned medical facility, and they actually brought the stuff home and spread it on their bodies and distributed it to their family and friends because it looked interesting.

It actually glowed blue. About 250 people were exposed to it. Of those people, only four actually died from radiation exposure. And this was an extreme example. But a large number of houses and buildings had to be completely demolished and the remains carted away in order to remove the radioactivity from the environment. It’s the contamination that’s the serious problem.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that Mr. Larsen?

RANDALL LARSEN: Absolutely. The psychological aspects in that Brazil case – he said two hundred and fifty people exposed but close to a quarter million demanded the government test them to make sure that they weren’t infected with radiation or something. So the most important thing, if we have one of these, and I think there’s a reasonable chance we will at some time, is that the government must step forward and communicate very effectively to the American public that fear is the worst enemy in this case.

JIM LEHRER: It’s a reasonable expectation because it’s so easy to do?

RANDALL LARSEN: I believe so. Terrorism is about fear. And radioactivity — that’s something you and I grew up with really fearing even though probably smoking two packs of cigarettes a day is far worse to your health than being disposed to a radiological dispersal device. That’s what we need to understand. I think we also need to understand that, like I say, we’re so much better prepared for this.

JIM LEHRER: In what way are we prepared?

RANDALL LARSEN: Okay. We have thousands of people, thousands in the federal government that wear things that look like a common beeper that you would wear. It’s a radiological detector. We have these at airports, seaports all of our border crossings and also we’ve given these to people all around the world, and so it’s easy when we’re looking for biological weapons, there’s no way to detect it if it’s in a suitcase a briefcase, or a truck.

But if you have one of these radiological detectors and you drive by in a truck, a car, carry it in a briefcase or a suitcase, this is going to go off. And this is a network satellite system that tells us when this stuff is moving around.

JIM LEHRER: Tell me again who has one of these.

RANDALL LARSEN: Customs officials, other officials. Government officials who are working in airports, seaports, border crossings in the United States and a lot of other places around the world. I tell you, we are better prepared for this threat than any other than that I know of these new weapons we’re worried about in the 21st century. And our response capabilities are so much better. The cleanup is a challenge because the EPA standards are so high.

We may have to revisit that. I think we’d probably use the military system that we used; you go wash it down with fire hoses and wash it off. So when people hear like plutonium, which is one that could be used — 24,000 year half-life — that sounds like a long time. But that’s not the problem. We had a nuclear bomb that two H-bombs were detonated when they fell from a B-52 crash in Spain in 1996 [editor’s note: the explosion over Palomares, Spain occurred in 1966]. When I say detonated, it was the high explosive and it spread plutonium over 588 acres.

JIM LEHRER: 588 acres?

RANDALL LARSEN: Acres of crops. Today they grow tomatoes in those fields in Spain. They’re perfectly healthy to eat. It took us several months to clean it up but it was cleaned up. This can be done. Some people say “can you just wash it down the sewer system and storm sewers?” And, “yeah, it’s going to go some, but it’s heavy material, it will set in the bottom of the rivers.” The economic damage that Hurricane Hugo did to Charleston and Hurricane Andrew did to Miami is far more significant than I think any radiological dispersal device we’ll see.

JIM LEHRER: Anything you want to add to that?

ROBERT NELSON: I would disagree with a few things that Mr. Larsen said. First of all, it is true that we have detectors at the borders that can detect so-called gamma emitters, cesium and cobalt, but it’s very difficult to detect things like plutonium, americium — so called alpha emitters. That’s technology that still needs to be researched and detectors improved. Secondly-

JIM LEHRER: Excuse me. I’m not sure I understand the distinction there. Explain why that’s important.

ROBERT NELSON: Well, because of the kinds of particles, the kind of radiation that is emitted. Some radioactive material is much more easily detected than others.


ROBERT NELSON: Plutonium and americium emit a particle that can’t be detected so easily.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, it would be smart to assume that a terrorist would know that and probably use the least detectable material?

ROBERT NELSON: Absolutely, although though those materials, at least the plutonium, are much more difficult to acquire. The other point is that you can’t just wash this stuff off of the surface and down the sewers because it tends to bond to asphalt and to rooftops and, in fact, the official EPA guidelines for buildings that have been contaminated by some of this stuff is demolition. And that’s one of the reasons why the economic consequences are so severe. We may have to demolish whole city blocks in order to bring this down to the level of the strict requirements of the EPA guidelines.

JIM LEHRER: What about Mr. Larsen’s point, he didn’t say it was inevitable but he said we should be expecting something like this primarily because it is so easy to do. Do you share that?

ROBERT NELSON: Absolutely. It’s one of the things that it’s easy to do, it actually has low health consequences, at least in the short term. The long-term consequences from cancers could be of concern. But there’s so many of these sources out there. There also needs to be improvement in programs to bring some of the stronger sources under control, security at food irradiation plants and some of the plutonium sources that are still at universities and industrial research centers need to be brought back under government control.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that Mr. Larsen?


JIM LEHRER: Do you think this arrest today is going to tighten security on this stuff?

RANDALL LARSEN: Hopefully it’s a good message to people. I think the most important message to the American public, though, is if you hear on the radio or TV there’s been a radiological dispersal device, panic is not the right thing. You don’t have to go get in your car and immediately run away.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Nelson, you agree?

ROBERT NELSON: Absolutely. The concern is the panic, the heart attacks and not the radioactive fallout.

RANDALL LARSEN: Long-term effects perhaps if you get a massive exposure but very minimal effect on human beings. Act responsively, eventually you want to move away from the area but it’s not — a rapid movement is not required.

JIM LEHRER: Just to recap here for a second, if you happen to be very close to where one of these things went off, even that isn’t as risky, you’re not risking instant death or something like that?

RANDALL LARSEN: Absolutely not. It’s almost impossible to get too much radiation from a radiological dispersal device.

ROBERT NELSON: Not from radiation.

RANDALL LARSEN: Smoking cigarettes would be worse.


ROBERT NELSON: Not from the radiation but, of course, the conventional explosion would-

RANDALL LARSEN: The blast, yes.

JIM LEHRER: Sure, the bomb itself. If you had a lot of dynamite and you were standing on the dynamite, the dynamite might hurt you.

RANDALL LARSEN: Now, about tearing down the buildings, that’s a good point, however, maybe we need to change the EPA standards for this.

ROBERT NELSON: That’s a discussion we need to have. There should be a public discussion about what the EPA standards should be in a case where you have a very widespread contamination at a low level.

JIM LEHRER: Well, I think we just started the public discussion. Thank you both very much.