In June of last year, when Attorney General John Ashcroft announced
the capture of suspected Al Qaeda sympathizer Jose Padilla, "dirty bombs"
became part of America's vocabulary.
As this NOVA News Minute reports: A dirty bomb may be a terrorist's weapon
Dirty Bombs: Physical or Psychological Danger?
With the nation guarding against terrorists, authorities are on the lookout
for a "dirty bomb". As shown on P-B-S's
"NOVA", a dirty bomb consists of conventional explosives combined
with some kind of radioactive material. Though it's often described as a poor
man's nuclear bomb, it wouldn't produce a nuclear explosion.
"A dirty bomb is not a nuclear weapon, but a real threat, a real possibility,"
Dr. Jack Caravelli of the U.S.
Department of Energy told NOVA. “It is a weapon that could wreak
havoc in ways far beyond its physical consequences. And that makes it an ideal
According to the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC) fact
sheet on dirty bombs, the panic that could follow an attack might be more
harmful than the explosion itself. Andrew
Karam, certified health physicist and the University
of Rochester's radiation safety officer, agrees.
"The death toll from the panic or just acting unwisely could very well
outweigh the death toll from the radiological weapon itself," he says.
But how much physical damage would a dirty bomb attack
"A lot would depend on how big the chemical explosion was and how much
radioactivity was involved in it," Karam told ScienCentral. But if the
dirty bomb spreads radioactive contamination over a large area, and if that
area is not cleaned up, there might be an increase in cancer rates years later.
"Up to 200 meters from the blast, if the area was not decontaminated,
the risk of cancer would increase by one in ten,” Mike
Levi, of the American Federation
of Scientists, told NOVA.
While some scientists say that even small doses of radiation—like the amounts
most likely to be dispersed by a dirty bomb—can cause cancer, others are
not so sure. "There is no doubt that radiation can cause cancer. The
doubt is what levels of radiation it takes to cause cancer," says Karam.
Such uncertainty can work to the terrorist's advantage, creating huge debates
about how best to clean up the radioactive mess.
While scientists disagree about the health risk of long-term exposure to low
level radiation, the impact could be devastating in other ways. "In some
cases either the cost or the technical barriers will be prohibitive to decontaminating
an area, and if people aren't willing to accept the radioactivity in that
area the only feasible option will be to abandon that space," Levi told
Even if no one is killed in a dirty bomb attack, the economic and societal
fallout could be devastating.
NOVA airs this week on PBS. For more information, visit