Wednesday, February 02, 2011

al-Qaeda about to deploy a “dirty bomb”?

via Instapundit

Al-Qaida is on the verge of producing radioactive weapons after sourcing nuclear material and recruiting rogue scientists to build "dirty" bombs, according to leaked diplomatic documents.

A leading atomic regulator has privately warned that the world stands on the brink of a "nuclear 9/11".

At a Nato meeting in January 2009, security chiefs briefed member states that al-Qaida was plotting a program of "dirty radioactive IEDs", makeshift nuclear roadside bombs that could be used against British troops in Afghanistan.

As well as causing a large explosion, a "dirty bomb" attack would contaminate the area for many years.

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I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a dirty bomb is in this article.  Early nuclear weapons were, because of inefficient design, dirty;  they only used a small amount of the fissionable material.  The rest was dispersed as fallout, along with the byproduct of the fission.  Newer designs greatly decreased the amount of unused material and thus produced cleaner bombs. Especially once thermonuclear bombs were produced and unused fissionables / fission byproducts were consumed in the fusion explosion. 

In today’s world a “dirty bomb” usually refers to a conventional bomb salted with radioactive materials.  While public perception of the danger posed by the radioactive component of such a bomb is that it is extraordinarily high, in fact it is pretty low.  I saw a death rate of something like an additional 5 to 8 people / 1000 over a 30 year period quoted somewhere recently(that is 5 to 8 additional deaths over 30 years not per year).  The vast majority of the death and destruction would come from the conventional explosion, and the radioactive material would generally be dispersed enough that decontamination while probably time consuming and expensive would be relatively easy technically, although time consuming and potentially expensive (depending on how well the dispersal went, in an urban area the built up structures might actually help contain it) .  The biggest impact would be psychological, and that could be a major impact to be sure, but I think after people saw how little actual damage was done recovery would be fairly swift.

Of course this isn’t to say we shouldn’t be vigilant about such attacks, but we should approach the idea logically.  In addition if we had a functional civil defense system in this country we would drill about what to do in the case of such an attack, but that’s a pipedream.

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