Do you know where your weapons-grade uranium is?

Derived from the remnants of decommissioned bombs and atomic-fuel plants, much of world’s 4.4+ million pounds of weapons-grade materials are poorly secured. This fact is especially troubling, given that a terrorist needs only about 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium or 8 kilograms of plutonium to create a powerful improvised bomb.

Although, none of the rumored 10-15 suitcase bombs that went missing after the collapse of the Soviet Union have been detonated in the 25 years since communism fell, one need not take his/her eye off the ball, because acquiring this material is not the obstacle one would expect.

Graham Allison, director of Harvard University’s international security program and a former nuclear-security adviser to President Ronald Reagan said he is surprised terrorists haven’t already used nuclear materials in an attack. “There is general agreement in national security circles that” a dirty bomb attack “is long overdue,” he said. “Terrorists have known for a long time that nuclear reactors are potentially vulnerable to attack or sabotage.”

Speculation over a potential attack was recently renewed when the government of Kazakhstan announced on September 2, 2014, that it was searching for a container of radioactive cesium-137 that fell off a truck in the western part of the country. Such radioactive sources are commonly used for medical, commercial and industrial purposes, and from time to time are reported lost or stolen. The material has since been recovered, but further highlighted the ease and risks of radioactive material being acquired by those who would do harm.

But let us examine a ‘dirty bomb’ and its potential threat.

A dirty bomb is a type of RDD. An RDD is a radiation dispersal devise. Perhaps the biggest misconception about dirty bombs — and there are many — has to do with their effects. Although radioactive material is utilized in constructing them, they are not nuclear or atomic weapons. They do not produce a nuclear chain reaction and, therefore, cannot create an “American Hiroshima.” There can be a range of effects produced by a dirty bomb depending on the size of the IED and the amount and type of radioactive material involved. Other environmental factors such as weather, terrain and population determine the ultimate effect.

Experts from the National Council of Radiation Protection and Measurements say that unless a large quantity of very highly radioactive material is used (material so radioactive that suicide bombers would likely die before they could detonate unless they were properly shielded) not many people would be immediately killed by the radiation. In fact, the explosive device used can present the greater threat. By design, a dirty bomb disperses small amounts of radiation over a large area. Thus any deaths caused by radiation would most likely result from cancer that takes many years to develop. As most victims will quickly leave the affected area and undergo decontamination, the health consequences are not dire.

So what we see by this examination, is that the real intention of a dirty bomb is to create terror and panic on a wide scale. And a bomb that explodes in a densely populated area can result in the kind of panic that could kill more people than the actual explosive devise or radiation.

In 1949 when the Soviets detonated their first nuclear bomb, Val Peterson, President Eisenhower’s first head of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, made the case that panic was “the ultimate weapon.” Panic could “produce a chain reaction more deeply destructive than any explosive known…. Mass panic — not the A-bomb — may be the easiest way to win a battle, the cheapest way to win a war.”

According to Wikipedia, panic is a sudden sensation of fear which is so strong as to dominate or prevent reason and logical thinking, replacing it with overwhelming feelings of anxiety and frantic agitation consistent with an animalistic fight or flight reaction. Panic may occur singularly in individuals or manifest suddenly in large groups as mass panic (closely related to herd behavior). Humans are vulnerable to panic and it is often considered infectious, in the sense one person’s panic may easily spread to other people nearby and soon the entire group acts irrationally, but people also have the ability to prevent and/or control their own and others’ panic by disciplined thinking or training.

People who know the limitations of dirty bombs and understand the consequences intended by the attackers are less likely to panic. And those who have spent time creating a contingency plan will fair far better than those who have not.

Contingency plans are especially important for those who work in close proximity to a potential dirty bomb target, but they are useful in any disaster, whether natural or man-made. The four benefits of contingency planning:

  1. Helps people get into a better position to cope with unexpected developments. It allows you to avoid the shock of complete surprise.
  2. Reduces indecision, uncertainty and delays when something unusual happens. Thinking ahead and preparing for events that can follow a tragedy may allow you to capitalize on speed of action
  3. Increases the likelihood of responding rationally to an unplanned situation. Those without a backup plan are making decisions fueled on fear and adrenaline.
  4. Forces people to think of multiple outcomes, rather than just the most likely outcome–does your contingency plan require you to rely on someone with/without a contingency plan?

Knowledge and planning will enable individuals to conduct an orderly and methodical evacuation of an affected area, allowing them to minimize their exposure to radioactivity while also limiting their risk of injury or death due to mass hysteria. Although a dirty bomb attack could well be messy and disruptive, it does not have to be deadly.

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  1. Great article and looking forward to getting the weekly edition