Friday, April 23, 2010

Clean Talk about Dirty Bombs

When the concept of "dirty bombs" first came to public consciousness in the months following the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, I reached back in my memory to my years as an activist advocating civil defense preparations against nuclear attack in the 1980s and realized that a "dirty bomb" posed little or no threat.  (For several years, I was on the board of directors and a vice president of the American Civil Defense Association as well as a contributing editor to the Journal of Civil Defense.  I traveled around the country lecturing about civil defense policy and debating people who disagreed with me.)

At the time, I shared my opinion with friends in conversation but felt no need to write about it, since the idea of an explosive device used to disperse nuclear material seemed so absurd.

People took it seriously, however, because (sadly) most Americans' "knowledge" of nuclear radiation is based on B-movies of the 1950s and later fright propaganda like The China Syndrome.

I mention this because I just came across an excellent piece on this topic from STRATFOR, a respected provider of intelligence and strategic information based in Austin, Texas.  (Coincidentally, the Austin American-Statesman was the first newspaper to publish my 1996 article headlined "Not All Bombs Are Planted by Terrorists.")  STRATFOR's analysts believe, as I do, that the dirty bomb causes more fear than it should, that is more "hype" than reality.

In its analysis, titled "Dirty Bombs Revisited: Combating the Hype," STRATFOR's analysts write:

In spite of the fact that dirty bombs have been discussed widely in the press for many years now — especially since the highly publicized arrest of Jose Padilla in May 2002 — much misinformation and disinformation continues to circulate regarding dirty bombs. The misinformation stems from long-held misconceptions and ignorance, while the disinformation comes from scaremongers hyping the threat for financial or political reasons. Frankly, many people have made a lot of money by promoting fear since 9/11.

Just last week, we read a newspaper article in which a purported expert interviewed by the reporter discussed how a dirty bomb would “immediately cause hundreds or even thousands of deaths.” This is simply not true. A number of radiological accidents have demonstrated that a dirty bomb will not cause this type of death toll. Indeed, the panic generated by a dirty bomb attack could very well result in more immediate deaths than the detonation of the device itself. Unfortunately, media stories hyping the threat of these devices may foster such panic, thus increasing the death toll.
I might add, such panic could be especially troublesome in the absence of a good disaster-preparedness plan.

The STRATFOR analysis continues:
By its very nature, the RDD [radiological dispersal device] is contradictory. Maximizing the harmful effects of radiation involves maximizing the exposure of the victims to the highest possible concentration of a radioisotope. When dispersing the radioisotope, by definition and design the RDD dilutes the concentration of the radiation source, spreading smaller amounts of radiation over a larger area. Additionally, the use of an explosion to disperse the radioisotope alerts the intended victims, who can then evacuate the affected area and be decontaminated. These factors make it very difficult for an attacker to administer a deadly dose of radiation via a dirty bomb.

It is important to note that a dirty bomb is not a nuclear device, and no nuclear reaction occurs. A dirty bomb will not produce an effect like the nuclear devices dropped on Hiroshima or Nagasaki. A dirty bomb is quite simply an RDD that uses explosives as the means to disperse a radioactive isotope, and the only blast effect will be from the explosives used to disperse the radioisotope. In a dirty bomb attack, radioactive material not only is dispersed, but the dispersal is accomplished in an obvious manner, and the explosion immediately alerts the victims and authorities that an attack has taken place. The attackers hope that notice of their attack will cause mass panic — in other words, the RDD is a weapon of fear and terror.
In a nice turn of phrase, STRATFOR says that a so-called "dirty bomb" is not a weapon of mass destruction (WMB) so much as it is a "weapon of disruption." Disruption is damaging in itself, of course, but it is not as damaging as the popular imagination has made it out to be.

I have to agree with STRATFOR's concluding paragraph:
As noted above, we believe it is possible that the panic caused by a dirty bomb attack could well kill more people than the device itself. People who understand the capabilities and limitations of dirty bombs are less likely to panic than those who do not, which is the reason for this analysis. Another important way to help avoid panic is to carefully think about such an incident in advance and to put in place a carefully crafted contingency plan for your family and business. Contingency plans are especially important for those who work in proximity to a potential dirty bomb target. But they are useful in any disaster, whether natural or man-made, and something that should be practiced by all families and businesses. Such knowledge and planning provide people with the ability to conduct an orderly and methodical evacuation of the affected area. This allows them to minimize their exposure to radioactivity while also minimizing their risk of injury or death due to mass hysteria. For while a dirty bomb attack could well be messy and disruptive, it does not have to be deadly.
I don't often make suggestions for "further reading," but this is an issue that, as STRATFOR says, requires education and solid information.

Let me first recognize a piece I wrote originally as congressional testimony that was later published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center (with a foreword by Lorne Greene) as Civil Defense:  A Moral, Political, and Strategic Approach.

I would also like to recommend a book (which I reviewed here) by George Mason University physicist Robert Ehrlich called Waging Nuclear Peace:  The Technology and Politics of Nuclear Weapons.

Given the sorts of thinking that lead to misconceptions about "dirty bombs" and other weapons of less-than-mass-destruction, it might be instructive to read The Apocalyptic Premise: Nuclear Arms Debated, edited by E. Stephen Hunt and the late Ernest W. Lefever.

Although all these books were written in the 1980s, they have unusual relevance today, not only because of the insights they might bring to bear on the possible use by terrorists of "dirty bombs," but also because of current debates about the arms treaty recently negotiated between Russia and the United States, and calls by European nations for the United States to remove tactical missiles from their territory, calls that have a remarkable similarity -- mimicry? -- to the nuclear freeze movement of more than 25 years ago.

Is it any wonder that Hollywood is remaking that iconic movie of the 1980s, Red Dawn?

Note:  Excerpts of the STRATFOR report are reprinted with permission of STRATFOR.

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