Blog 114. Dirty bombs and panic words

Stimulated by the press, a few colleagues told me of their concerns with dirty bombs delivered by terrorists. Whoa, let’s look at whether that risk means massive deaths or just monstrous mess.

A so-called “dirty bomb” is radioactive material scattered by an ordinary chemical explosive, whether the device is a man-carried “pressure-cooker” as used the 2013 Boston marathon or a vehicle loaded with fertilizer, as used in Oklahoma City (1995) and at the University of Wisconsin (1970).

It’s the “dirty” part—the scattered radioactive material—that attracts attention due to our cultural nuclear paranoia—a fear easily inflamed by misinformation after an event.

A long article in The Atlantic magazine (Sept. 2016) reviewed American antiterrorist preparedness, concluding that a dirty bomb is the most ominous threat due to the ease of attack, the possible damage, and “most of all, the danger of overreaction to it … .” That overreaction part IS the danger—overreaction is what a terrorist intends to achieve. The Atlantic goes on to headline this as “THE BOMB THAT LASTS FOR DECADES.” Come on, let’s be realistic. It’s the irrational fear of it that can impede us for decades, not the bomb itself.

The Atlantic describes a hypothetical example in which a “small” dirty bomb is detonated at the National Gallery of Art.

“The explosion might kill only a few people, but it would create an area with contamination levels as dangerous as a ‘Superfund’ site—a venue designated as having high levels of toxic waste that demand immediate government intervention … .”

Hey, that isn’t the whole truth.

The designation “Superfund site” means the responsible party (a mining company, a chemical plant, a waste dump) cannot (or will not) pay for the cleanup—not necessarily because the site kills those who walk on it. After all, the industrial folks who made a superfund mess walked away. They walked away after they, themselves, were walking on the site, usually for years. Threats to health usually occur if the material is distributed off-site or if the ground is disturbed by new construction. Atlantic, methinks you display misleading spectacular vernacular.

The Atlantic quotes an expert’s alarm:

“The contaminated area would cover 40 city blocks” and the buildings would have to be “abandoned for decades” … “an extra one in ten thousand people would die of cancer if people were not evacuated and if the area were not completely scrubbed.”

Yes, the area would be roped-off and scrubbed—in part because the dose limits for the general public call for exposure much less than the natural background radiation from cosmic rays and from the earth—and in part because radioactive material can be detected in such small amounts. One death in ten thousand sounds awful, but it’s an extrapolation into a range too small to measure. Unfortunately, for comparison, killing 35,000 people every year in traffic accidents is not too small to measure, yet we ignore that threat.

Fortunately, The Atlantic offers the redeeming truth if you read far enough.
“… dirty bombs present less a safety challenge than a perception challenge … an incremental casualty rate that could probably be offset by an antismoking campaign in one or two D.C. office buildings … Because of popular perception, an explosion would unleash panic.”

I just wish Atlantic had put that last sentence in the headline instead of “bomb that lasts for decades.” It might be more effective to reduce the public paranoia than to enlarge the agencies that search for dirty bombers.