- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2002

From combined dispatches
While "dirty bombs" may not wreak destruction on the scale of an atomic weapon, experts say they could cause panic, enormous economic damage and spread toxic radioactive waste.
Dirty bombs are conventional explosive devices with radioactive materials wrapped around them. When they explode, the radioactive material contaminates the area over which it is dispersed.
Such a bomb is relatively easy to make. Whereas a nuclear bomb is made with highly enriched uranium and plutonium both of which are usually under tight security a dirty bomb would probably be made with a less-secure isotope, such as cesium, cobalt-60 or strontium-90, found in waste material or used in medicine and research.
The arrest yesterday of an al-Qaeda-affiliated man suspected of planning to use a dirty bomb in an attack on the United States has sparked discussion about the destructive power of such a device and its impact on people.
Much depends on the type and size of the bomb, the radioactive material it contains and the weather conditions at the time of the attack, said Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists. Some materials are more likely to cause cancer than others, and some persist longer.
A report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that a 4,000-pound bomb detonated in a bus parked on the Mall the center of tourist attractions in Washington could contaminate a small part of the downtown area, which would have to be evacuated.
Many would probably die in car accidents fleeing the scene, and hospitals could be inundated with people suffering from radiation sickness, which begins with vague, flulike symptoms, said Andrew Karam, a radiation expert at the University of Rochester in New York.
"It can cause nausea, vomiting, weakness, lethargy not too different from what most people experience after a hard night of partying," Mr. Karam said.
Attorney General John Ashcroft described the suspect, Abdullah al Muhajir, as a known terrorist and operative of al Qaeda, the network run by Osama bin Laden, prime suspect in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The suspect is a U.S. citizen who was born in New York as Jose Padilla.
Last month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission disclosed that it received an average of 300 reports a year of small amounts of radioactive materials missing from construction sites, hospitals and other places where these radioisotopes are used.
NRC officials said they have no evidence of anyone collecting this material to have enough for a dirty bomb. But critics say no one is sure of that.
The NRC said even a small amount of radioactive material, if properly milled into fine particles and dispersed by a conventional explosive, could spread radioactive particles over several blocks.
A piece of radioactive cobalt from a food irradiation plant could, if blasted apart in a bomb in New York, contaminate 380 square miles.
"The entire borough of Manhattan would be so contaminated that anyone living there would have a 1 in 100 chance of dying from cancer caused by the residual radiation. It would be decades before the city was inhabitable again, and demolition might be necessary," Mr. Kelly said.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide