Radiological Weapons

There are nuclear weapons, biological weapons, chemical weapons, and finally radiological weapons. The threat of exposure to radiological weapons, also known as “Dirty Bombs”, has increased over the last five years. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, plus the manhunt of Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda operatives has increased awareness towards weapons of mass distruction.

The most famous instance of a terrorist using a dirty bomb is Jose Padilla.

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Padilla, also known as Abdullah Al Muhajir, was captured by authorities in June 2002 during a Pakistan to Chicago “reconnaissance mission.” U.S. officials also said that Padilla flew between Pakistan, Egypt, and Switzerland, before he was captured in Chicago. Padilla, who is reportedly linked to Al Qaeda, was in the early stages of planning to detonate a dirty bomb in the U.S.

A radiological weapon, also known as a dirty bomb, or a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD), uses an explosive device such as dynamite, fire, or by dilution in air or in water to disperse radioactive material. There are three factors to take into account when assessing the extent of damage caused by a dirty bomb: the size of the explosive, the amount and type of the radioactive material used, and the weather conditions. If the dirty bomb is detected quickly, local authorities have a better chance of protecting the citizens. Furthermore, decontamination efforts will be improved if the contamination is caught quickly.

Experts stress that there is a difference between atomic bombs and dirty bombs. Atomic bombs involve “the splitting of atoms and a huge release of energy that produces the atomic mushroom cloud. A dirty bomb works completely differently and cannot create an atomic blast. Instead, a dirty bomb uses dynamite or other explosives to scatter radioactive dust, smoke, or other material in order to cause radioactive contamination.”

According to The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, the radioactive material inside a dirty bomb is not enough to cause immediate serious illness. However, if the radioactivity spreads throughout a wide range, it can become harmful if it is inhaled. Low level exposure to radiation from a dirty bomb does not cause any symptoms. However, symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and redness and swelling of the skin does occur in people who have had higher levels of exposure to radiation from other sources.

There is no information available regarding the environmental effects of radiological weapons such as dirty bombs.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission concurrs with the CDC’s information regarding radiological weapons such as dirty bombs. The USNRC says that the explosive charge that sets off a dirty bomb is much more lethal than the radioactive material inside the bomb. For instance, the USNRC says that 100,000 cancer patients are released from the hospital on a daily basis after being exposed to the radioactive material of cancer treatment. This exposure is “sufficiently benign.”

Becuase of the low radioactivity within close contact of dirty bombs, plus the increased security after the events of September 11, 2001, dirty bombs simply are not used as often as other weapons. The owners of radioactive material must immediately report any lost or stolen materials to the authorities, as well as keeping it secure from unauthorized access. Furthermore, there has been only one case of stolen radioactive material that has never been recovered. The missing material is not a pressing issue at this time because the material decays rapidly over a short time span and it loses its potency.

Because humans cannot tell if they have been exposed to radiation caused by a dirty bomb, emergency personnel use radiation detecting equipment to check people for exposure. The device is called a dirty bomb because “it kills or injures through the initial blast of the conventional explosive and by airborne radiation and contamination.” Therefore, victims get “dirty” from the blast or die from the explosion.

Johnston, William Robert. “Dirty Bombs and Other Radiological Weapons.” Johnstonsarchive.net. September 15, 2005. Copyright 2002-2005, 2006. William Robert Johnston. September 19, 2006. http://www.johnstonsarchive.net/nuclear/dirtybomb.html

Virginia Terrorism Preparedness. “Terrorism Information: The Facts-How to Prepare-How to Respond.” Copyright 2006. Virginia Department of Emergency Management. September 19, 2006. http://www.vaemergency.com/threats/terrorism/toolkit/terrguide/weapons/nuclear.htm

UCLA. “Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear or High-Yield Explosives (CBRNE).” DIS 455: Government Information. December 8, 2003. University of California Los Angeles. September 19, 2006. http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/smittelb/CBRNE.htm#rb1

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Fact Sheet on Dirty Bombs.” February 25, 2004. September 19, 2006. http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/dirty-bombs.html

Department of Health and Human Services. “Frequently Asked Questions About Dirty Bombs.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. March 21, 2005. September 19, 2006. http://www.bt.cdc.gov/radiation/dirtybombs.asp

Ensor, David, et al. U.S. authorities capture ‘dirty bomb’ suspect.” cnn.com/u.s. June 10, 2002. September 19, 2006. http://archives.cnn.com/2002/US/06/10/dirty.bomb.suspect/index.html

“What is a ‘dirty bomb?’ ” June 10, 2002. Nuclearno.com. Copyright 2000. NuclearNo.ru. September 20, 2006. http://nuclearno.com/text.asp?3218

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