Society News Archive

13 January 2004

Dirty Bombs Could Cause Devastating Economic Damage

A radioactive "dirty bomb," also known as a radiological dispersion device (RDD), is first and foremost an economic weapon capable of inflicting devastating damage on the United States. A successful event with a Super RDD could cause as much or even more economic damage than did the September 2001 attack in New York by contaminating large areas with radioactive material. National Defense University (NDU) researchers Peter D. Zimmerman, a nuclear physicist, and analyst Cheryl Loeb presented these conclusions in a Defense Horizons paper released today.

The issue of dirty bombs has been a topic of wide discussion since the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on the danger of radiological terrorism in March 2002. Debate in Washington has continued following the well-publicized arrest of Jose Padilla, who was charged with plotting to detonate an explosive device packed with radioactive material, in the summer of 2002. More recently, an article in The Washington Post dated January 7, 2004, stated that the threat of a "dirty bomb" partially influenced the December 2003 decision to raise the national threat advisory to Orange Alert.

Zimmerman and Loeb of NDU's Center for Technology and National Security Policy (CTNSP), recently completed their yearlong in-depth study on radiological terror titled "Dirty Bombs: The Threat Revisited."

Among their findings, they note that under current regulations most contaminated buildings cannot be cleaned well enough to be reoccupied. The levels of radiation would likely force the evacuation of the areas until a thorough survey could be completed. Complicating the problem, damage from radiation is not covered under almost all insurance policies in the United States.

The authors point out that there are a number of methods that can be used to deliver radiological material in addition to the highly publicized method of using conventional high explosives.

Zimmerman and Loeb conclude, after careful analysis of previous radiological incidents, that some forms of radiological attack could kill hundreds and sicken thousands of people. They also conclude that people who do not take some simple precautions can readily ingest or inhale radioactive material and become contaminated internally. In the event of a dirty bomb attack, the United States should be prepared to cope with victims of acute radiation sickness.

The authors recommend several policies and actions to reduce the threat of a dirty bomb attack and increase the ability of the Federal Government to cope with the consequences of one:

- The Department of Energy weapons laboratories, in cooperation with other agencies and institutions, should identify, test, and deploy technologies that will enable rapid cleanup and decontamination of buildings, vehicles, and people.

- Cargo entering the United States must be screened not only for strong sources of radiation but also for heavy materials, such as lead, that could be used to shield intense sources from radiation monitors.

- The Federal Government should provide some form of national insurance against damage from radioactive contamination.

With improved public awareness and improvements in the government's ability to respond, Zimmerman and Loeb believe it should be possible to strip RDDs of some of their power to terrorize.

A Washington Post article on this report can be found on the Washington Post website until January 20.