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Misuse of Chemistry in History

Dirty Bombs
Radiological Attack A radiological attack is the spreading of radioactive material with the intent to do harm. Radioactive materials are used every day in laboratories, medical centers, food irradiation plants, and for industrial uses. If stolen or otherwise acquired, many of these materials could be used in a "radiological dispersal device" (RDD).

Radiological Dispersal Devices, also known as Dirty Bombs A "dirty bomb" is one type of RDD that uses a conventional explosion to disperse radioactive material over a targeted area. The term dirty bomb and RDD are often used interchangeably in technical literature. However, RDDs could also include other means of dispersal such as placing a container of radioactive material in a public place, or using an airplane to disperse powdered or aerosolized forms of radioactive material. In studies conducted on dirty bombs, most governments have included that the risk of radiation damage from a dirty bomb is actually pretty minimal. However, the detonation of such a device could be a powerful tool for creating fear in the populace, as many people have a deep-seated fear of radiation. The fear and panic created by a dirty bomb could create chaos, along with demands for an intensive cleanup of the site, which could be extremely costly. Dirty bombs are one form of Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD). Concern about such devices has led most governments to tightly control radioactive material, with the goal of ensuring that it does not fall into the wrong hands. However, a fair amount of technical know-how is required to build a dirty bomb, and as a result these devices are much less of a threat than improvised explosive devices (IEDs), suicide bombs, and other more crude forms of terrorism which are easy to plan, construct, and execute.

Constructing and obtaining material for a dirty bomb In order for a terrorist organization to construct and detonate a dirty bomb, they must acquire radioactive material by stealing it or buying it through legal or illegal channels. Possible RDD material could come from the millions of radioactive sources used worldwide in the industry, for medical purposes and in academic applications mainly for research. Of these sources, only nine reactor produced isotopes stand out as being suitable for radiological terror: americium-241, californium-252, caesium-137, cobalt-60, iridium-192, plutonium-238, polonium-210, radium-226 and strontium-90, and even from these it is possible that radium-226 and polonium-210 do not pose a significant threat.

Effect of a dirty bomb explosion When dealing with the implications of a dirty bomb attack, there are two main areas to be addressed: The civilian impact, not only dealing with immediate casualties and long term health issues, but also the psychological effect. The economic impact. With no prior event of a dirty bomb detonation, it is considered difficult to predict the impact. Several analysts have predicted that RDDs will neither sicken nor kill many people.

A Dirty Bomb Is Not a Nuclear Bomb It is extremely important to differentiate a dirty bomb from an atomic bomb. Although dirty bombs do contain nuclear material, they are in no way as powerful or as devastating as a nuclear bomb. In fact, the explosives in a dirty bomb would be far more dangerous than the radioactive material, with most scenarios attributing the bulk of casualties to people in close proximity to the explosion, rather than to radiation damage. A nuclear bomb creates an explosion that is thousands to millions of times more powerful than any conventional explosive that might be used in a dirty bomb. The resulting mushroom cloud from a nuclear detonation contains fine particles of radioactive dust and other debris that can blanket large areas (tens to hundreds of square miles) with "fallout". By contrast, most of the radioactive particles dispersed by a dirty bomb would likely fall to the ground within a few city blocks or miles of the explosion.

Precautions If you are exposed to a dirty bomb, you should shower, discard clothing worn at the time of the explosion, and seek medical attention. In the event that a dirty bomb explodes in a major urban area, such medical attention will probably be readily available, as disaster response teams will undoubtedly descend en masse to the site.

Detection and Measurement Radiation can be readily detected with equipment carried by many emergency responders, such as Geiger counters, which provide a measure of radiation dose rate.

What Do RDDs Do? The Area Affected The effect of a dirty bomb varies, depending on how it is constructed, the type of materials involved, and the predominant conditions on the day when the device is detonated. For example, severe winds could carry the radioactive materials in the bomb across a wide swatch of area, generating more or a mess to clean up. Or, a large amount of explosives could be used, creating chaos at the site of detonation while also ensuring a wide dispersal. Most dirty bombs and other RDDs would have very localized effects, ranging from less than a city block to several square miles. The area over which radioactive materials would be dispersed depends on factors such as:

Amount and type of radioactive material dispersed. Means of dispersal (e.g. explosion, spraying, fire). Physical and chemical form of the radioactive material. For example, if the material is dispersed as fine particles, it might be carried by the wind over a relatively large area. Local topography, location of buildings, and other landscape characteristics. Local weather conditions.

Possible Dirty Bombs in History


September 1987
Goiaina, BrazilA scrap-yard worker pries open a lead canister that was scavenged from an abandoned cancer treatment center. Inside the canister the man is finds a sparkling blue powder; he has no idea the powder is radioactive cesium. Curious residents living near the junkyard pass the canister from home to home for nearly a week. More than 200 people are exposed to the cesium. The incidenta radiation disaster second only to Chernobyl in size and scopecauses the deaths of four people, including a six-year-old girl who rubbed the powder over her body and hair so that she glowed. The radioactivity contaminates soil, businesses, and homes, 85 of which are leveled during the cleanup process.

The destruction of a contaminated Goiaina home

November 1995
Moscow, RussiaIn the first-ever attempt at radiological terror, a group of Chechen rebels contacts a Russian television station and boasts of its ability to construct a radioactive bomb. The rebels alert the press that they have buried a cache of radiological materials in Moscow's Ismailovsky Park. In the very spot where the rebels The cesium-filled package uncovered indicated it would be, authorities find a in a Moscow park partially buried container of cesium. Neither the Chechens who planted it there nor the original source of the cesium are ever identified.

March 1998
Greensboro, North Carolina Nineteen small tubes of cesium go missing from a locked safe in Moses Cone Memorial Hospital. The tubes were being stored for use in the treatment of cervical cancer. Though local, state, and federal officials scour the city using sophisticated radiation-sensing equipment, the cesium is never recovered. Authorities believe whoever stole the cesium tubes may have been trained to handle the material, since unprotected contact with the tubes could have caused serious injury or even death. After the loss, the hospital takes steps to better secure its nuclear assets.

Cesium tubes similar to the ones missing from Greensboro

December 1998
Argun, ChechnyaThe head of the Russian-backed Chechen Security Service, Ibragim Khultygov, announces that a Security Service team has found a container filled with radioactive materials and attached to an explosive mine hidden near a railway line. They safely defuse the bomb but do not identify the radioactive substances involved. The location of the discoveryin a suburban area 10 miles east of the Chechen capital of Grozny, where a Chechen rebel group is known to operate an explosives workshop leads nuclear specialists to suspect Chechen rebels' involvement in the incident. Shamil Basayev, the rebel leader who phoned in the dirty-bomb threat in Moscow three years earlier, is the known chief of the explosives workshop near Argun.

Shamil Basayev, Chechen rebel leader

September 1999
Grozny, ChechnyaUnidentified thieves attempt to steal a container of radioactive materials from the Radon Special Combine chemical factory. Half an hour after being exposed to the container, one of the suspects dies and the other collapses, even though each held the container for only a few minutes while trying to carry it out of the factory. The surviving suspect is hospitalized in critical condition, but he recovers and is placed under arrest. Chechen officials do not discuss his case publicly, nor do they identify the type of radioactivity involved in the incident, saying only that the container held 200 grams of "radioactive elements."

Inside the Radon Special Combine in the Chechen capital

June 2002
Chicago, IllinoisJose Padilla, an American citizen and former Chicago gang member with known ties to Al Qaeda, is arrested in Chicago's O'Hare airport on suspicion of planning to build and detonate a dirty. F.B.I agents suspect Padilla has recently undergone training in Lahore, Pakistan, where he allegedly studied the mechanics of dirty-bomb construction, including how to wire explosive devices and how to optimize bombs for radiological dispersion. Padilla is being held as an "enemy combatant" in a military brig and may be detained indefinitely.

Jose Padilla, who allegedly intended to explode a dirty bomb in the U.S.

December 2001
Lja, GeorgiaThree woodcutters discover two heat-emanating containers near their campsite in the remote Abkhazia region of the Caucasus. Hoping to use the containers as a heat source, the men drag them back to their tents. Within hours they become ill with nausea, vomiting, and dizziness, and leave the site to seek treatment at a local hospital. Later, the men develop severe radiation burns on their backs. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) dispatches a team to recover the containers, when the IAEA team finally reaches the, they discover that each one, previously used in Soviet-era radiothermal generators, contains 40,000 curies of strontium, an amount of radiation equivalent to that released immediately after the accident at Chernobyl.

The Georgia radioactive device and its containment bucket with handles

January 2003
Herat, AfghanistanBased on evidence uncovered in Herat, including detailed diagrams and documents stored on computers, British intelligence agents and weapons researchers conclude that Al Qaeda has succeeded in constructing a small dirty bomb, though the device has not been found. Officials do not know how much radiation the dirty bomb could spread, but they suspect that Afghanistan's Taliban regime helped Al Qaeda build the device by providing radioactive sources from medical devices. Furthermore, Abu Zubaydah, the captured Al Qaeda lieutenant now in American custody, told interrogators that such a device existed. In Kabul, in April 2002, IAEA experts secured several powerful unguarded radiation sources, mainly cobalt, once used in medical and research applications.

A collage of dirty bomb plans journalists recently discovered in Afghanistan