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Jose Padilla was arrested two years ago at O’Hare International Airport by the FBI on a “material witness” warrant. Padilla was alleged to have met with senior al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan and Pakistan, received training in the use of high explosives and sent back to the United States “to reconnoiter potential sites” for detonating a radiological dispersal device – sometimes referred to as a “dirty bomb.”

A month later, President Bush accepted the recommendations of Attorney General Ashcroft and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that Padilla – a U.S. citizen – be treated as an “enemy combatant.” So, Padilla has been held in solitary confinement in a military prison ever since.

Because the issue of Padilla’s confinement is now before the Supreme Court, Deputy Attorney General Comey decided he’d better “brief” the rest of us in on what military interrogators have gotten their imprisoned “enemy combatant” to reveal about his “dirty bomb” intentions.

According to Comey, Padilla, while in Afghanistan, had suggested to his al-Qaida “handler,” Abu Zubaida, that they construct a real nuke, using “plans” Padilla had found on the Internet. Zubaida didn’t think Padilla – or anyone else in al-Qaida – was capable of doing that. However, he did think they might be able to construct a “dirty bomb.”

According to Comey, the al-Qaida radiological dispersal device would have consisted of uranium wrapped with explosives.

Now, if uranium is actually the “radiological agent” Zubaida suggested be used, then he doesn’t know diddley-squat about nukes, dirty or otherwise.

And, apparently, Comey doesn’t, either.

In fact, if Padilla had proposed to use lead rather than uranium, his “dirty bomb” would have made a bigger mess.

You see, uranium is only weakly radioactive, emitting principally “alpha particles,” which won’t even penetrate rubber gloves. True, uranium is a heavy metal, but unlike lead, is not a “bone seeker.” In fact, if ingested in any form other than a fine aerosol, it passes right through the body.

Two years ago, before Comey revealed what radiological agent Padilla intended to use, the dirty bomb “experts” at the Federation of American Scientists decided to scare the pants off you soccer moms.

The FAS “dirty bomb” was a “coffee jar” containing about a thousand curies of a true radiological material such as Cobalt-60. That’s about the radiological source-strength of a medical radiotherapy unit used to irradiate cancer patients.

“A successful bomb would have to be designed with great sophistication, first to break open the ‘coffee jar,’ then to gradually heat the radioactive source so that it vaporized, and finally to scatter it to the winds.”

Sophistication?

Padilla?

Actually, the FAS scenario sounds like the 1986 Chernobyl accident. A graphite-moderated, water-cooled reactor at Chernobyl was being deliberately operated in a zone where the reactor was known to be unstable. The operators lost control, the reactor ran away, melting the core, setting the graphite moderator on fire and vaporizing the coolant, splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen gases. The fire then ignited the hydrogen-oxygen gas mixture, which exploded, blowing the roof off the reactor building.

About a hundred million curies of radioactivity were spread over a wide area by invisible gases and thick black smoke. The fire burned for 10 days. Downwind, Soviet citizens could see the smoke and the sooty “fallout.” But there was no terror, no panic. In fact, one of the other power plants at Chernobyl continued to operate throughout the entire ordeal.

Many of those downwind, who were forced to evacuate, didn’t want to go. And except for an increase during the first several years after 1986 of thyroid cancer in small children, there has been no significant increase in cancer incidence among the downwind population.

But the FAS apparently scared some of you. So, we and the Russians – in cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency – have decided to help other countries enhance their own radiological safeguards and physical security.

There are estimated to be more than 10,000 medical radiotherapy units and 12,000 industrial radiographic units in operation worldwide. Thieves – not terrorists – have stolen several medical radiotherapy units – which weigh about a ton – and sold them as scrap metal.

In the worst incident – in 1987 in Brazil – the thieves removed the highly radioactive source from the shielded unit. Result? Five persons died within days and others got life-threatening doses of radiation.

Hence, the FAS thousand-curie dirty-bomb scenario results in a dead dirty-bomber and very little terror.

But, Padilla could survive his micro-curie uranium scenario. That is, if he wore rubber gloves.

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