The Dirty, Dirty Bomb


Buy duct tape and plastic sheeting. Stockpile food, get a pocket radio, hoard batteries, and find an easily sealed place in your apartment. Terrorists are about to strike, and according to the 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. The Chechens buried explosives with radioactive cesium in Moscow in 1995 and alerted the news media rather than setting them off.

The problem with dirty bombs is that the radio-active “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. Packing an intense amount of radioactivity, the ingredients would radiate more than enough to guarantee death or maiming for terrorists who handled them. Just look at what has happened to the unwitting in other countries who’ve stumbled upon discarded radioactive metals.

Milling the radioactive material for 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 on edge.

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.