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Dirty Bomb

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: February 25, 2003

 

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"Dirty Bomb" probes the realities and implications for public health policy of a disaster that many consider to be all but inevitable: a terrorist attack on a major city using a radioactive "dirty bomb." The program strives to answer crucial questions about this menacing new weapon in the terrorists' arsenal, questions such as: What exactly is a dirty bomb? How dangerous could one be, and how much radiation could it release? What will need to be done to clean up after an explosion?

Unlike a nuclear bomb, which can destroy an entire city, a dirty bomb does most of its work psychologically. Diabolically simple, the device is made of nothing more than conventional explosives wrapped around some unrefined radioactive material, such as strontium, cobalt, or cesium—all obtainable from thousands of poorly regulated sources.

To test the consequences of a projected attack, "Dirty Bomb" dramatizes two scenarios based on sophisticated models developed by a team of radiation experts, including Michael Levi, the director of the Strategic Security Project at the Federation of American Scientists. One of these scenarios looks at the consequences of a dirty-bomb detonation in the Washington, D.C., subway system, and the other at a detonation's aftermath in Trafalgar Square, London. More sobering than the direct effects of any explosion, however, is that an incident like the ones dramatized in "Dirty Bomb" could cause widespread panic and crippling damage to the economy—achieving the terrorists' fondest wishes—even if no one died when the bomb went off.

U.S. officials are convinced that some sort of dirty-bomb attack is imminent. In spring 2002 American Al Qaeda sympathizer Jose Padilla was arrested on suspicion of planning a dirty-bomb attack in the U.S. Several months earlier, American intelligence agents in Afghanistan uncovered detailed Al Qaeda plans for a sophisticated version of a dirty bomb.

"The understanding was basically at a fairly advanced physics level," says former CIA head of intelligence Vince Cannistraro. "It wasn't just the kind of formula that you might be able to pick up off the Web.... It was a pretty well-thought-out scenario on how to make the most deadly kind of dirty bomb imaginable."

Aside from the effect of the explosion itself, which would injure or kill those in its immediate vicinity, some people near the blast might be exposed to levels of ionizing radiation high enough to cause sickness or death. Many others would be at risk from radioactive contamination that could linger for decades or even centuries, causing an increased rate of cancer if nothing is done to clean the area. Even if quite small, the increased cancer risk may be unacceptable to the public, leading to demolition or abandonment of affected areas at a cost of billions, and potentially trillions, of dollars.

Experts have already learned what to expect from previous accidents. In Goiaina, Brazil, in 1988, a radiation contamination incident occurred in which a small quantity of radioactive cesium chloride discovered by scrap-metal merchants led to four deaths and an enormous cleanup effort. Decontamination took six months and generated more than 5,000 cubic yards of radioactive waste. (For more on this tragedy, see Chronology of Events.)

More serious incidents have occurred in the former USSR, where many tons of radioactive substances were produced for experimental crop treatment and other uses during the Soviet era. Much of this extremely dangerous material is now at large. The program shows an incident in the Republic of Georgia, in which a security team disposes of a deadly canister of strontium that was discovered by hunters. Each member of the security team could spend only 40 seconds near the highly lethal source before reaching maximum allowable exposure.

Even the U.S. has had close brushes with accidental nuclear contamination, including a cesium industrial gauge that was discovered in a scrap yard in North Carolina—fortunately, before it was melted down. And in 1988, radioactive needles for cancer treatment disappeared from a hospital in Greensboro, N.C., and have yet to be found.

"We certainly have problems in our own backyard," concedes Dr. Jack Caravelli of the U.S. Department of Energy. "Do I worry about a dirty bomb being made from material of American origin? Yes, I do."

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As if the threat of conventional and biological terrorism weren't enough to contend with, we also have to prepare ourselves for radiological terrorism—the use of so-called "dirty bombs."




Dirty Bomb Web Site Content
Preparing for Terrorism

Preparing for Terrorism
Graham Allison discusses both radiological and nuclear terrorism.

Ask the Expert

Ask the Expert
Charles Ferguson of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies answers your questions.

Chronology of Events

Chronology of Events
Review incidents involving unprotected radioactive materials.

Sources of Radiation

Sources of Radiation
Explore radioactive sources both harmful and beneficial, natural and manmade.



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