How Dangerous Are
They may be easier for terrorists to build than nuclear weapons, but how dangerous are so-called "dirty bombs?"Washington, D.C.
Medford/Somerville, Mass. [06.11.02] On Monday, John Ashcroft announced that law enforcement and intelligence officials broke up a plan to set off a "dirty bomb" in the nation's capitol. While just the notion of a weapon with some "nuclear capability" frightens many, experts say the real danger is fear, not fall out.
"Dirty bombs combine traditional explosives with radioactive material," reported the Associated Press. "While not creating a nuclear explosion, they could release small amounts of radioactive material over dozens of city blocks."
Unlike the wide-spread and immediate damage caused by the explosion of a nuclear weapon, the impact of a "dirty bomb" would take much more time to measure.
Theoretically, say experts like Tufts' Dr. David Rush, a large enough bomb could cause significant damage.
"There hasn't been enough independent research on this, but based on what we've seen in the nuclear weapons plants, certainly a radiological attack could be catastrophic," Rush -- a professor at Tufts' School of Medicine -- told the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
A member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, Rush and his colleagues have studied the impact of nuclear weapons on health for decades.
But many experts -- including Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Richard Meserve -- say the problem with "dirty bombs" isn't their power.
"Meserve ... said the health consequences from the use of a "dirty bomb" would be minimal and said the greater concern was a 'psycho-social one,'" reported ABC News. "He added, "The terrorist's greatest weapon is fear.'"
Because the radioactive materials in a "dirty bomb" are relatively weak, the damage would likely be isolated to a small blast area.
"If such a device were constructed, the impact to public health, safety and the environment from its detonation would depend on the amount of explosives used," Meserve -- a 1966 Tufts graduate -- wrote in a letter to Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey. "Acute fatalities, from radiation exposure, could occur among those people in close proximity to the blast. However, more people might be killed by the shrapnel caused by the conventional explosive than by radiation exposure."
Fallout from the radioactive material wouldn't necessarily be deadly -- or even highly dangerous -- but would likely require extensive clean-up, Meserve said.
"[A "dirty bomb"] could spread low-level contamination over an area up to several city blocks, possibly resulting in restriction to the area until the area was surveyed and decontaminated," Meserve wrote in a separate letter to Markey.
Though not particularly dangerous in low levels, the decontamination process could have wide-scale economic impacts.
If detonated in a city, "The affected areas would have to be evacuated and then cleaned, turning the downtown into a temporary ghost town and creating economic havoc," reported The Boston Globe.
But Meserve said planning such a device is easier than actually creating one.
"Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials said such an attack would be difficult because tight regulation of highly radioactive material control its use, storage, shipment and disposal," reported New York's Newsday. "Commission chairman Richard Meserve said it was 'extraordinarily implausible' that hundreds of city blocks be rendered uninhabitable."
And increased security measures following September 11th, Meserve said, have put the nation's nuclear material under even closer scrutiny.
"This is not a time for panic or doomsaying," the Tufts graduate said in a recent speech to the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators. "Rather, it is a time for all of us, in government and the industry, to stick to the task at hand. The national interest requires vigilance at a high level ... and it requires coolness and clear-sightedness in analyzing and correcting problems."