As terror tension escalates, are we just scaring ourselves to death, again? First we feared percussive plastics, then bio-fear and bugs and now comes the fear of nuclear weapons in the hands of fanatics. More recently, the media has been spreading stories about dirty radioactive bombs. Is this concept even dangerous, or just another dumb dumb-bomb idea?

As radiological physicians (radiologists) we did diagnostic radiological work for decades. We’re worried that the term “radiological bomb” sometimes used to describe these devices might catch on and demean our entire profession. “Dirty bomb” is better but “dirty radioactive bomb” is a better and more accurate description.

But first, we are not discussing nuclear fission or thermonuclear fusion devices (aka atomic and hydrogen bombs) which release vast amounts of energy from reactions in atomic nuclei – these are indeed weapons of mass destruction. Even so, the effect of even these is limited to the immediate area impacted – for example, a city such as Washington, D.C., and areas downwind receiving fallout.

We are talking about the latest idea of using a chemical explosive to disperse intensely radioactive material. The dirty radioactive bomb idea is to set-off high explosives wrapped with highly radioactive stuff on the outside, like a vest, so that the explosion disperses the radioactivity. Such a device could indeed be a weapon of “mass disruption” – unless we get a grip on the realities of radiation and the limitations of such a device.

The media and the public should not immediately panic because some papers blowing in the wind in Afghanistan had crude sketches of crude ideas written on them, including printouts of Internet web sites satirizing the “How to Build a Nuclear Bomb for Fun and Profit” idea.

To meet this “threat,” we need to corral some of our irrationally exuberant fears about radiation. Too much ionizing radiation can indeed kill you, just as too much aspirin can kill you. And, like aspirin, low doses of radioactivity can enhance human health. Remember, human beings have always lived in a world pervaded by low levels of ionizing radiation. And once radioactivity (like aspirin) is diluted enough, it has no effect.

And remember, terrorists have problems too. For example, building and handling such dirty radioactive bombs is a risky venture for the wannabe terrorists who might get fried by radiation before they deliver their payload.

In an interview with us, John Toman, former Nuclear Test Group director at the Nevada Test Site for testing nuclear devices, said the radioactive material itself, if intense enough, might generate enough heat to cause the chemical explosives to ignite prematurely, truncating both the mission and the terrorists’ lives. According to Toman, adequate shielding around an intensely radioactive device could cause it to be the size and weight of the 15,000 pound “daisy cutter” bomb used in Afghanistan. This could not be packed in a suitcase and, lacking your own personal B-52, would be difficult to deliver.

In a telephone interview, James Muckerheide, president of Radiation, Science and Health, Inc., and Massachusetts state nuclear engineer compares the dirty radioactive bomb concept with the results of the very wide dispersal of a huge amount of radioactivity from the disastrous accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power reactor in the former Soviet Union. That reactor failed because it did not have many of the safeguards routinely included in nuclear power reactors outside communist countries. The Chernobyl accident released thousands of times more radioactivity than any conceivable dirty radioactive bomb.

Last June, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation reviewed the Chernobyl accident at a conference in Kiev, Ukraine. According to Muckerheide, the UNSCEAR report found that “not a single member of the public was killed by the Chernobyl accident” despite the dispersal of a much larger amount of radioactivity than is conceivable from a dirty radioactive bomb. Of three cases of fatal thyroid cancer, two afflicted people received so little radiation that scientists concluded that Chernobyl radiation was not a factor, and a third person died because of inadequate treatment.

Muckerheide notes: “It’s a whole lot easier to kill people with shrapnel from a high explosive than it is to kill people with radioactivity dispersed by a high explosive device.” Any radioactivity scattered by a dirty radioactive bomb could be readily and safely cleaned up with well-established techniques.

Most all of these doomsday scenarios are science fiction, as are the fictitious scares released by people seeking attention and power.

And whatever you do, please don’t call the dirty radioactive bomb a “radiological” bomb. That would hurt the feelings of a lot of people – including us and 20,000 other radiological physicians!

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