Dirty bombs were all the rage at the Nuclear Security Summit this week.
First, many world leaders attending the summit participated in a stimulated dirty bomb attack on a major Western city in an exercise they called “nukes on the loose.” As the London Telegraph reported: “World leaders played an interactive nuclear war game designed to test their responses to a terrorist atomic ‘dirty bomb’ attack that threatened the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.” In addition, 23 nations at the summit announced they would follow international guidelines for securing the radioactive materials used in dirty bombs, and even go further in some areas than the guidelines recommend.
A dirty bomb is a conventional explosive that is laced with radioactive material. The purpose of the weapon is to have the explosion disperse the radioactive material throughout the area in which it detonates, wreaking havoc above and beyond what the conventional explosive itself causes. Particularly since 9/11, there has been extensive concern among security analysts and political leaders that terrorists might use dirty bombs in their attacks on civilian targets, given the relative ease with which they could secure the requisite materials. Thus, much of the response to the perceived threat of dirty bombs, including the initiative cited above, has focused on supply-side tactics—that is, trying to deny terrorists access to radioactive materials.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
This is all very sensible and something I generally support. However, there is a rather easier and cheaper way to fight the supposed dirty bomb threat that gets no attention. Namely, by educating the public.
Why would educating the public counter the potential threat posed by dirty bombs? Dirty bombs, which are also called radiological dispersal devices (RDD), don’t actually pose much of a threat in and of themselves. In fact, to the extent that they pose an actual threat to the public, this threat has largely been created by a massive (yet unintentional) misinformation campaign waged by public figures and security analysts since 9/11.
Inherently, however, a dirty bomb’s largest threat comes from the actual conventional explosive contained in the bomb. As the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) explains, “Most RDDs would not release enough radiation to kill people or cause severe illness — the conventional explosive itself would be more harmful to individuals than the radioactive material.” It continues: “If there are casualties [from a dirty bomb attack], they will be caused by the initial blast of the conventional explosive. The radioactive particles that are scattered as a result of the explosion cause the ‘dirty’ part. The explosives in such a bomb would still be more dangerous than the radioactive material.”
That’s because: “It is very difficult to design an RDD that would deliver radiation doses high enough to cause immediate health effects or fatalities in a large number of people.” Indeed, even the long-term threat of the radiation exposure is limited. According to the NRC, “just because a person is near a radioactive source for a short time or gets a small amount of radioactive dust on himself or herself does not mean he or she will get cancer. Any additional risk will likely be extremely small. Doctors specializing in radiation health effects will be able to assess the risks and suggest what medical treatment, if any, is needed, once the radioactive source and exposure levels have been determined.”
So why has so much attention been given to the dirty bomb threat, you ask? Mainly because security analysts and politicians fear that the explosion of a dirty bomb in a major city would create massive amounts of panic among the local populace. For that reason it is annoyingly common in the field to describe dirty bombs not as weapons of mass destruction, but rather weapons of mass disruption, “where contamination and anxiety are the terrorists’ major objectives,” according to the NRC.
What often gets omitted from these conversations is any discussion of why the public of any city would panic upon learning that a dirty bomb had been set off in their city. Part of the reason is simply because people have an inordinate fear of radioactive material, based on the false assumption that being exposed to any of it will kill them. This has been perpetuated by events like the Fukushima disaster, or rather the media coverage of the Fukushima disaster, which omits the fact that (as best I can tell) not a single person has died from radiation at Fukushima, even though it was tragic nonetheless. In either case, a concerted effort to educate the public should alleviate or greatly minimize this phenomenon.
But much of the panic that dirty bombs might cause is the result of the way they have been portrayed in the media since 9/11 by security analysts and politicians. Countless times, pundits or leaders have said something to the effect that “I greatly fear there will be a nuclear terrorist attack or at least a dirty bomb which is much easier to manufacture.” (Dirty bombs have also become a prominent subject at international global nuclear meetings like, say, the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit).
In so doing, they have wrongly conflated in the public’s mind a dirty bomb and a nuclear weapon. Most people may grasp there is a difference between a nuclear weapon and a dirty bomb, but they unsurprisingly associate them together and therefore believe that a dirty bomb would be immensely destructive.
In reality, in terms of their destructive levels, dirty bombs and nuclear weapons have absolutely nothing in common. This is true both in terms of the size of the explosion they cause—to reiterate, a dirty bomb only causes a conventional explosion—and in the radiological threat posed after the blast. In fact, a dirty bomb is much, much more similar to a conventional explosion than a nuclear weapon. In fact, in terms of its level of destruction, a dirty bomb would be virtually indistinguishable from a conventional bomb according to the NRC.
Thus, the cheapest and easiest way to counter the potential dirty bomb threat is to launch a massive PR campaign to repair the damage that has been done by the post-9/11 misinformation campaign about dirty bombs. This would include not making dirty bombs a topic of conversation at a huge international security conference called the Nuclear Security Summit, which only perpetuates the public’s confusion. It would most especially mean not conducting a much publicized stimulation of a dirty bomb attack called “nukes on the loose.” And once terrorists were convinced that the public understood the actual threat posed by dirty bombs—and thus would not panic if one were set off—they’d have no incentive to go to the trouble of securing radioactive material to build a dirty bomb.