Richard E. Wackrow / Empiricist

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My Articles

The Dirt on ‘Dirty Bombs’
Excerpted from my article about the threat of nuclear and ‘dirty bombs’
in the March/April 2014 Skeptical Inquirer magazine

In May 2002, Jose Padilla, an Hispanic U.S. citizen who had converted to Islam, was arrested in Chicago and accused of planning to build and detonate a radioactive “dirty bomb” in the United States. He was arrested on U.S. soil long before he could have carried out his alleged plot. In fact, he was never charged with the crime of plotting to use a dirty bomb. Eventually, he was convicted on lesser charges related to providing material support to terrorism and plotting mass murder, and sentenced to 17 years in prison.
     The notion of Islamic terrorists attacking the United States with a dirty bomb was planted by Abu Zubaydah, an associate of Osama bin Laden. Zubaydah was captured in Pakistan in March 2002 (and at the time of this writing he remained in captivity at Guantánamo, Cuba). That possibility was eagerly accepted by the early Bush administration and the media. (Curtis 2004) But despite the fact that there never has been such a plot, the specter of terrorists using a dirty bomb remains etched in the minds of Americans today.
     A dirty bomb is an explosive device that, according to terrorism folklore, will someday disperse nasty stuff — in most scenarios, radioactive material or a biological agent, such as anthrax spores — using a simple large explosion, thereby inflicting mass casualties. In 2003, Michael A. Levi, a former science and technology fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, took Bush administration officials to task for irresponsibly miscategorizing the dirty bomb as a weapon of mass destruction:

Most flagrantly, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, announcing the arrest of suspected dirty-bomber Jose Padilla on June 11, 2002, incorrectly declared, “a radioactive ‘dirty bomb’ involves exploding a conventional bomb that not only kills victims in the immediate vicinity, but also spreads radioactive material that is highly toxic to humans and can cause mass death and injury.”
     And … announcing the new orange terror alert, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge remarked, “Weapons of mass destruction, including those containing chemical, biological or radiological agents or materials, cannot be discounted.” (Levi 2003)

     In reality, the theoretical dirty bomb should more rightly be called a “weapon of mass disruption,” not a weapon of mass destruction. (U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission 2010) A dirty bomb would likely only kill those in immediate proximity to the initial explosion. Such a device would contaminate an area commensurate with the strength of the explosion it produced (from a few square meters to several city blocks). The depth of contamination would depend on the type and amount of the agent that it dispersed (its degree of radioactivity and particle size, for example).
Continued right column ...

Listen to my July 25, 2013,
Radio Interview


Guest Opinion: Fear Itself
threatens Americans’ freedoms

This column ran in the June 20, 2012, Billings Gazette and several other Montana newspapers

Helena lawyer Cory Swanson (May 26 Gazette guest opinion) concurs with Rep. Denny Rehberg’s support of HR 1505 (the National Security and Federal Lands Protection Act), “a bill that strengthens America’s ability to protect itself by securing our borders against illegal aliens, drug and human traffickers, and terrorists.”
     While claiming that Montana’s border with Canada is an “open door” for terrorists, Swanson fails to note that in the 10-plus years since 9/11, not one single terrorist has been apprehended trying to “sneak” over either border.
     This is despite the fact that in fiscal year 2001, the Border Patrol had 9,821 agents nationwide, including 340 on the Canadian border, and that by the end of fiscal year 2010, the number of agents nationwide had more than doubled to 20,558, and the number of agents on the Canadian border had increased almost 600 percent to 2,263.

Fear trumps fact
In the course researching my book “Who’s Winning the War on Terror,” I came to recognize the political, bureaucratic and monetary benefits of keeping Americans frightened of terrorism. Create a bogeyman, then claim to be protecting America from it.
     And, I found case after case where in order to achieve that goal, fear trumps fact.
     For example, Swanson neglects to tell us that (according to a 2012 study by the Pew Hispanic Center) more illegal Mexican immigrants are leaving the United States than entering it — because of a dropping birth rate in Mexico, a weak U.S. economy, and increasing difficulty getting across our southern border.
     Yet “Fear Inc.” muddles illegal immigrants (people unlawfully entering the United States to find work), drug smugglers (businessmen) and terrorists together, as if they are somehow colluding in a grand conspiracy to undermine our national security and way of life.
     Groups opposing HR 1505, aka “the Border Patrol Takeover Act,” are legion — including the Department of Homeland Security itself.
     One of the latest expressions of opposition comes from two ranchers (one north, one south) writing in the June 15 Los Angeles Times: “As border-area landowners, we strongly oppose two bills pending in Congress: HR 1505, sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, and S 803, cosponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.”
     Both bills, they write, would give unrestricted power to the DHS on land currently under the jurisdiction of the Interior or Agriculture departments, a great deal of which is leased to ranchers and farmers.

Wasting taxpayer money
     I’m not sure why, as Swanson writes, “Denny Rehberg deserves your support as he tries to pass an important bill to protect our way of life.” Passage of that bill would ravage our public lands, extend our paranoia-driven police state, violate our property rights, and divert tax money that could be better used on projects that are based on real needs rather than on a mythical terrorism threat.
     Terrorism works by turning the power of a stronger enemy against itself by fostering fear. HR 1505 would serve to do just that. And the federal agency whose sworn mission is to protect us from terrorism — the DHS — seems to agree.



     As for volatile biological agents being dispersed by a dirty bomb or other means, writes Levi, “plague, while able to kill in vast numbers if left untreated, can be halted by a seven-day course of antibiotics.” (Levi 2003) In the case of the September 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States — which infected some twenty-two people with concentrated doses of anthrax virus, killing five of them — letters containing bacteria were mailed to selected desired individual victims. This can hardly be classified as a biological attack designed to inflict mass casualties.
     I checked numerous credible, credentialed sources on the subject of dirty bombs and arrived at the following compendium of largely concurring opinions about them:

  • A radiological dirty bomb can be built to disperse any number of substances that are produced in nuclear reactors: strontium-90, americium-241, cesium-137, cobalt-60, iridium-192, plutonium-238. But the more-volatile radioactive materials can kill even an intentional suicide bomber before he has built and exploded the device.
  • These materials are becoming more and more difficult to obtain. From the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission: “Most reports of lost or stolen material [in the United States] involve small or short-lived radioactive sources that are not useful for a [radiological dispersal device]. Past experience suggests there has not been a pattern of collecting such sources for the purpose of assembling a [dirty bomb]. It is important to note that the radioactivity of the combined total of all unrecovered sources over the past 5 years (emphasis added) … would not reach the threshold for one high-risk radioactive source.” (U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission 2010)
  • More skill is involved in building an effective radiological dirty bomb than we have been led to believe.
  • Dispersal of a radioactive substance would be determined by factors such as wind speed and direction. Immediate exposure of potential victims would be mitigated by such factors as their being in and around buildings when the device exploded.
    The primary step to limiting human injuries from radiation is quick evacuation of the affected area. It is highly unlikely that victims in the bomb’s range would absorb a lethal dose of radiation before they could leave.
  • Controversy surrounds the amount of radiation that can be harmful to humans, but qualified experts seem to agree that the danger has been exaggerated. Even the largest dirty bomb is likely to inflict significant casualties only if long-term cancer risks are considered.
  • Opinions vary regarding the ease and speed with which a contaminated area could be cleaned up, and when people could safely return to the area.
  • The strategy for dealing with a dirty bomb should include public information (to inform the public how to react and to quell panic); a national, coordinated first-response structure; expertise in the appropriate emergency medical care.

     A dirty bomb, in fact, has never been successfully deployed to inflict human casualties or terror. In 1987, the Iraqi military tested such a device. Following 9/11, the U.S. Energy Department’s Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico experimented with basic dirty-bomb designs (using innocuous materials with the same dispersal properties as would-be radioactive agents, of course). The U.S. Defense Department ran tests, as well. (Hanley 2010) In all three cases, it was concluded that a dirty bomb would not inflict mass casualties. (Curtis 2004)
     What I will consider the last word on this subject comes from the DHS. In its July 2010 United States-Canada Joint Border Threat and Risk Assessment (U.S. Department of Homeland Security 2010), the agency both invokes the specter of Al Qaeda’s continuing intentions to use chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) materials in terrorist attacks, and proffers a realistic appraisal of the probable success of such efforts:

  • Chemicals are generally the least difficult of CBRN materials to acquire; however, it is considered technically challenging for a sub-state group to develop stable, high-quality chemical agents in sufficient quantity to implement a mass-casualty attack.
  • One of the greatest challenges in creating an effective biological weapon is keeping the agent viable during dissemination.
  • Although [a radiological dispersal device] is unlikely to cause many fatalities due to acute radiation, an RDD attack could contaminate a large area, rendering it inaccessible until significant decontamination has occurred.
  • The critical challenge for a terrorist group remains acquisition of a sufficient quantity of fissile material, or acquiring a useable weapon from state inventories. ...

Given what we have learned from reputable experts, including those in government agencies such as the NRC and DHS, we have to conclude that the likelihood of Americans being killed by a ... dirty bomb deployed by terrorists is vanishingly small. Acquisition of an adequate supply of ... radioactive material, virulent biological agent or potent toxic chemical, and the construction of a device adequate to perform the intended deadly deed are beyond the reach and the acumen of even the most dedicated jihadist. But despite the science, the fanciful terrorism scenarios proffered in the early post-9/11 years linger in the mind of the public. And the ever-growing counterterrorism strategy and infrastructure of the United States continue to be predicated on an overestimate of the prowess of our enemies.

Curtis, Adam. 2004. The Power of Nightmares Part 3, BBC/UK.
Hanley, Charles J. 2010. U.S., Russia Test “Dirty Bombs,”
     CBS News, March 3.
Levi, Michael A. 2003. Panic more dangerous than WMD,
     Chicago Tribune, May 26.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 2010. United States-Canada
     Joint Border Threat and Risk Assessment, July.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 2010. Fact Sheet on
      Dirty Bombs, August. at

     Full article available in print edition only; click here.

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