Dirty bomb titillation

A University of Illinois professor who specialises in arms control and international security issues says reports about the danger of so-called ‘dirty bombs’ have sensationalised the facts about such weapons.

A University of Illinois professor who specialises in arms control and international security issues says reports about the danger of so-called ‘dirty bombs’ have sensationalised the facts about such weapons, planting new and largely unwarranted fears in the minds of Americans.

‘This is just silly,’ said mathematics professor Julian Palmore, who also has a faculty appointment in Illinois’ Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security and teaches courses on terrorism and national security. ‘The administration is making announcements and the media are picking up on them and sensationalising the whole process.’

‘The upshot of it all,’ he said, ‘is that detonating a dirty bomb just doesn’t make sense’ because such bombs are, in effect, inefficient delivery systems for dispersing radioactive material.

Even if terrorists got access to radioactive isotopes and wrapped them around a conventional explosive device – an unlikely scenario, according to Palmore – the real danger would come from the explosion, not the spread of radioactive material. ‘If you’re thinking in terms of pellets of radioactive material that might be spread through an explosion,’ he said, the danger is minimal because ‘it doesn’t disperse in the air; you would just go through the area with a Geiger counter and clean it up.’

A real threat does exist, Palmore said, if alpha and beta emitters from radioactive materials are inhaled. But it’s unlikely, he said, that terrorists would have the knowledge or expertise to transform radioactive materials into a form that could easily be dispersed in the air. And if they did, radiation detectors could be used to warn people to stay away from contaminated areas.

A bomb enveloped in more powerful gamma emitters could pose a serious threat to a targeted population, Palmore conceded, but it’s even more unlikely that terrorists would be able to pull off such an operation. That’s because they would have to wrap the device in so much shielding material – to protect themselves from dying while building and delivering it – that it would be too heavy to transport in a car or airplane.

Besides incomplete reporting, the liberal use of ‘the R word’ in recent news reports has fanned public fears as well, Palmore said.

‘Radioactive is a word that triggers a fear response, like cancer, or anything we don’t want to think about. It causes anxiety.’

‘This is all just another example of how we’re blowing something out of proportion because it looks high-tech, rather than focusing on the fact that it doesn’t work,’ said Palmore, who insists that terrorists are more likely to employ low-tech strategies. ‘Why don’t we focus our attention on something that does work? If we really want to start thinking about what terrorists can do, we’ve got to think about their state of mind and the culture they come from. They may use cell phones, but that’s because they just happen to have them; they don’t have the technology or capability to actually produce them. To conjure up high-tech threats when none exist just sells newspapers and titillates people.’

Source: University of Illinois