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How Dangerous Are Dirty Bombs?

Science and military experts disagree somewhat on the potential devastation that would be caused by the explosion of a dirty bomb, like the kind the accused al-Qaeda terrorist Abdullah al Mujahir was allegedly planning to build.

They all agree that a dirty bomb is not the same as a conventional nuclear weapon, which produces intense heat and radiation from splitting atoms and kills huge number of people instantly. A dirty bomb has radioactive material inside or around conventional explosives, which are then detonated to spread the radioactivity. This kind of radiation doesn?t immediately kill, according to Naval War College professor William Martel, "But it'd create huge amounts of terror, havoc, and panic."

The radioactive element that?s most likely to be in a dirty bomb is cesium-137, says Phil Anderson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Washington Post believes that the al-Qaeda organization "has probably acquired" this material.

Cesium-137 is used to treat cancer and to maintain accurate atomic clocks, so it can be obtained from discarded medical waste. It?s created as a byproduct of nuclear reaction, so it could be stolen from a nuclear power plant or purchased on the Russian black market.

As cesium-137 cools down from its radioactive to its normal state, the isotope emits gamma radiation. This radiation is not as toxic as the heavier, alpha particles emitted by uranium, but it travels further and is extremely difficult to contain. Only concrete, steel or lead can prevent it from spreading.

Also, cesium easily combines with other elements, so the isotope becomes easily attached to the area where a dirty bomb explodes, making it hard to clean up after such an explosion. Cesium attaches itself to roofing materials, concrete, and soil, says Fritz Steinhausler, who led the International Atomic Energy Agency's environmental assessment of the disaster at Chernobyl. Once bombs areas become contaminated with cesium, it?s almost impossible to clean it off. If major cities were dirty bombed, they might have to be torn down and rebuilt, at great inconvenience. If New York was hit, it would disrupt worldwide economic markets. If D.C. was hit, the federal government would have to locate elsewhere for several years.

"The Russians tried to clean it up for years, and they eventually gave up. It just wasn't economically viable," says Steinhausler. "People had to give up their village or city. Large areas became simply empty. It really destroys a society."

Cesium interacts as effectively with muscle tissues as it does with soil and building materials, because of its chemical similarity to potassium, which muscles need in order to flex. Fortunately, the body is used to processing these kind of chemicals, and excretes half of the cesium it absorbs within 100 days. Strontium-90, used in conventional weapons, is similar to calcium and is absorbed into bones, and it can take 30 years for the body to get rid of half of it. But the absorbed cesium "would nevertheless cause a radiation dose, potentially increasing the risk for cancer," Steinhausler says.

Steve Koonin, of the California Institute of Technology, thinks the health risks from a dirty bomb are pretty minimal. He says, "Long exposure to low-level gamma radiation, if you do the numbers, produces a miniscule increase in cancer rates -- one extra cancer per 100,000 people."

The Federation of American Scientists doesn?t agree. They say that if a dirty bomb containing only 10 pounds of TNT and cesium 137 the size of a pea was detonated in D.C., "The initial passing of the radioactive cloud would be relatively harmless, and no one would have to evacuate immediately. However, residents of an area of about five city blocks?would have a one-in-a-thousand chance of getting cancer. A swath about one mile long covering an area of forty city blocks would exceed EPA contamination limits, with remaining residents having a one-in-ten thousand chance of getting cancer. If decontamination were not possible, these areas would have to be abandoned for decades."

Even illegally discarded radioactive waste can be a health major problem. In Brazil, four people died and more than 34,000 people had to be screened for contamination in 1987, after a man found an abandoned medical device filled with cesium-137 in a junkyard. This February, a missing medical gauge containing cesium-137 was discovered in a North Carolina scrap yard. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it receives 300 reports of lost or stolen radioactive materials every year, meaning it would be fairly easy to get the material to build a dirty bomb.

While a dirty bomb would cause health problems and death, its biggest danger is disruption, as cities would need to be cleaned and rebuilt and citizens relocated. This is why major cities would be the most likely targets.

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