From a terrorist's perspective, the icing on the cake in the 9/11 attacks would have been bundles of cobalt-60 or strontium-90 on board each plane. In that case, all the dust and smoke clouds would have been radioactive, many millions would likely have immediately evacuated, the cleanup costs might have reached into the trillions of dollars, and some areas might have been abandoned altogether for upward of a generation. Such is the potential wake of a so-called dirty bomb—a conventional explosive in a wrapper of radioactive materials. The widely dispersed radioactive particles don't kill immediately but add to long-term cancer and other health risks.
Consequently, a dirty bomb is not a weapon of mass destruction, but a weapon of mass disruption.A well-made, well-placed dirty bomb can cause a little bit of panic and a lot of economic devastation. Imagine several blocks of midtown Manhattan uninhabitable for 30 years. Imagine a thoroughly contaminated Capitol Hill, Sears Tower, LAX.
Dirty bombs are also attractive because the materials are so widely available and relatively easy to package. This is not nuclear science, requiring years of know-how and precision instruments. It's mostly just good hard thieving. I don't need to list all the best places to acquire this stuff. Take it on the word of people who know—it's around. If you're conniving enough to get an illegal cable TV hookup, you can figure out how to put together a dirty bomb.
The good news, according to nuclear-materials expert Charles Ferguson, is that the United States and the world community have actually acted on this threat over the last several years, making significant progress. Ferguson was working for the State Department on 9/11, but like almost everyone else in government, knew next to nothing at the time about our vulnerability to a dirty bomb. The next day, Sept. 12, 2001, he was asked to draft a memo for his boss, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, about its risks and potential consequences. What he learned was startling: Thousands of radioactive sources were barely secure, and many of them were unregulated and not even well-documented. First responders had no clue how to react to such an attack.
Two years later, he published (with Tahseen Kazi and Judith Perera) probably the most definitive study on the issue. They ended their report with a long list of recommendations. The paper gained wide circulation, and, somewhat to Ferguson's surprise, many of the recommendations have since been carried out in the key nations: Awareness has been raised; export controls have been strengthened; training has been dramatically improved for first responders; disposal has been seriously recognized as a security and not just a safety issue; and alternative sources have been more seriously explored. In short, though radioactive materials are still widely available, the most dangerous ones are under much tighter control and would require more sophisticated thieving to acquire. "Most of the terrorists aren't too smart—they're bunglers," Ferguson told me. "But we need to pay attention to the fact that some of them might be smart enough or skilled enough to put together a good [dirty bomb]."
Our vulnerability may have diminished somewhat, but many experts still consider a dirty bomb attack a virtual inevitability. If it happens, what to do? First, do not panic. Even in the worst-case scenario, the chance of you being exposed to a harmful dose of radiation is very small. You can also help by spreading the message of reason. Radiological terrorists are counting on social panic fueling the destructive power of their attack. Our ability to respond calmly to such an attack is one of our best defenses.
If you are in the immediate vicinity of an attack, or potentially in the path of the subsequent cloud of dust, it would be prudent to stay indoors (with windows closed and air conditioners turned off) for a prescribed period of time. If you are actually exposed to radioactive dust particles, take a shower and safely dispose of your clothes and shoes. That key-chain radiation monitor I mentioned earlier in this series would come in handy. A radio should be on hand for bulletins about wind direction and evacuation procedures. Note: For technical reasons having to do with the types of radiation involved, potassium iodide pills would likely be effective for true nuclear attacks or nuclear power plant leaks—but not effective for dirty bombs. Obviously, if you suspect acute radiation poisoning (symptoms: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss), you should seek immediate medical attention. Read more about radiation emergencies here.
As a citizen, I'm very worried about the potential of a large-scale radiological attack. As a neurotic survivalist, I'm bored. More than any other type of attack, a dirty bomb is an attack on society, not on particular individuals. We should continue to put pressure on our government to minimize our vulnerability. But the reality is, as individuals, there's not much to worry about and even less to prepare for.
Save your anxiety for our concluding threat …