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Re: [cdn-nucl-l] How Bad Would A Dirty Blast Be? Here's What The Experts Say
> Posted in the Washington Post on June 13, 2002 and at:
> Very interesting figure - for the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
> "...of those survivors since 1950 show that of 86,572 people exposed to
> levels of radiation thousands of times greater than a dirty bomb could
> produce, cancer deaths exceeded the expected numbers for that population
> by 335".
> How Bad Would A Dirty Blast Be? Here's What The Experts Say.
> By Don Oldenburg
> Washington Post Staff Writer
> Thursday, June 13, 2002; Page C01
> Another day, another "credible" terrorist threat. The disaster scenario
> du jour is now the so-called dirty bomb, so called because this is a
> conventional bomb that plays dirty. Experts say a dirty bomb could range
> in size from a small "suitcase" device to a truck bomb, and maybe
> larger. Its explosive may be as ordinary as dynamite, but it's packaged
> with radioactive material that, detonated, is scattered in fragments and
> airborne dust -- or "dirt." Hence the name.
> You have probably heard public officials and terrorist experts say a
> dirty bomb's real threat is psychological. And that it is a weapon of
> terror, fear, panic and disruption rather than one of mass destruction.
> But what else does the public need to know about dirty bombs? How bad
> are they, really? Here's the dirt:
> What could happen if a dirty bomb went off in downtown Washington?
> Experts envision scenarios that could be on the scale of Timothy
> McVeigh's 1995 truck bombing in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people
> -- with the added dimension of radiation contamination. But it could be
> much less if it involved a small device, such as one set off by a
> backpack bomber.
> "But even a big one would do much less damage than Hurricane Andrew did
> in Florida," says Randy Larsen, director of the ANSER Institute for
> Homeland Security, a nonprofit research organization in Alexandria.
> Almost all deaths and serious injuries would be confined to the
> immediate vicinity of the explosion. The downtown area would shake from
> the blast. Anyone nearby would know a bomb had exploded but would have
> no clue it was a dirty bomb -- you can't smell, taste, feel or see
> radiation -- until authorities announce they have detected it.
> How widespread the damage?
> In March, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International
> Studies simulated what would happen if terrorists detonated a
> 4,000-pound dirty bomb in a school bus parked outside the National Air
> and Space Museum. In the simulation, the museum ended up almost
> destroyed and nearby buildings damaged. An estimated 10,000 people were
> in the immediate vicinity; how many would have died isn't known, but the
> acute threat was confined to a radius of a few city blocks.
> Although in the simulation, prevailing winds carried contamination into
> southern Pennsylvania, the amounts were very small because radiation
> dissipates quickly.
> The highest contamination would occur in the blocks surrounding the
> blast -- or about 10 percent of the District, says Philip Anderson,
> senior fellow for homeland security initiatives at CSIS, who specializes
> in anti-terrorism strategies. People there would get about a
> 5-rem-per-hour dose of radiation. That's the amount the Environmental
> Protection Agency says is the maximum safe dose to absorb in one year, a
> standard that is considered very cautious; even absorbed in hours, the
> amount is not likely to make you sick.
> Another 10 percent of the District -- people a half-mile to a mile from
> the blast -- would be in contaminated areas, but not seriously
> contaminated. The dose would be so small, says Anderson, that it would
> probably take days or weeks to exceed the EPA maximum yearly safe dose.
> "The key point," he says, "is that nobody is going to become sick or die
> from radiation."
> John Zielinski, professor of military strategy and operations at the
> National War College in Washington, estimates that, generally, someone a
> mile from the blast is likely to walk away unscathed. And "you could be
> within a couple hundred yards of it, and if you are upwind, you might
> not have a problem at all," he says. "If they set it off in a street and
> you are one block over and behind a building, there might be no risk."
> What casualties?
> Beyond those inflicted by the blast itself, the number of deaths and
> injuries is likely to be minimal -- depending on the radioactive
> material used, the size of the explosive, wind conditions and the
> effectiveness of the evacuation response.
> Most experts play down any probability of radiation-related deaths.
> "Threat to life? Not worried about it other than the explosive device
> itself," says Larsen. "The main thing is, people should not lose much
> sleep over this.
> "Just imagine if Timothy McVeigh had put five pounds of radioactive
> material and blew that up in Oklahoma. . . . No more people would have
> probably died than did."
> Long-term effects of radiation exposure? Most experts say that except
> for people in the immediate area of the blast who survive, the odds are
> against anyone absorbing enough radiation to suffer long-term effects,
> such as radiation poisoning or cancer.
> And the history of radiation exposure is on our side. In a nuclear
> disaster second only to Chernobyl that occurred in Brazil in 1987,
> junkyard workers pried open a metal canister from a cancer clinic.
> Inside was glowing blue radioactive cesium-137 dust. By the next day,
> dozens of locals had been exposed. "Several ingested it," says Anderson.
> Of the 20 seriously exposed victims, "four died. But 100,000 plus people
> had to be medically evaluated. Most of those -- 47,000 people -- had to
> take a shower and be monitored down the road."
> Although the devastation was unimaginable and an estimated 200,000
> people died from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki --
> from the explosion and radiation poisoning in the first year -- the
> long-term health-related problems for survivors hasn't been as horrific.
> Charles B. Meinhold, president emeritus of the National Council on
> Radiation Protection, a nonprofit international clearinghouse for
> research on radiation safety, says studies of those survivors since 1950
> show that of 86,572 people exposed to levels of radiation thousands of
> times greater than a dirty bomb could produce, cancer deaths exceeded
> the expected numbers for that population by 335.
> What should I do if I'm in the vicinity of the explosion?
> The basic rule is to stay inside or get inside, then listen to the radio
> or television for further information.
> The amount of radioactive dust that could seep inside or enter a
> building through its air-filtering system isn't likely to be
> significant. "If you are inside of a building, your chances are like
> getting several X-rays' worth of exposure," Zielinski says.
> If you're outside, determine whether the wind is coming your way. "You
> don't want to be running down the street," Zelinski says. "Get into a
> building and reduce the amount of dust that gets on you."
> Close to the explosion? Covered with residue? Stay put. "If the response
> is good, they are going to try to decontaminate folks closer in as
> opposed to those fleeing," says Zielinski. "Even if it takes an hour for
> authorities to respond, you are going to get better treatment there than
> going to a hospital."
> Worst reaction? Racing for mass transit or trying to drive home. Not
> only could you contaminate your car, but you could also spread radiation
> to your family. And experts are concerned that people trying to flee the
> city would jam traffic routes and delay emergency teams from getting to
> the scene.
> Experts say what the public needs to remember most about dirty bombs is
> that if you survive the explosion, the amounts of radiation are most
> likely so low that a few hours of exposure isn't going to be harmful.
> "The public health people would be there within three hours or sooner,"
> says Meinhold. "Let them worry about evacuation, decontamination, etc."
> How about washing?
> "Most or a large portion of the decontamination effort is going to
> involve a soapy shower and a change of clothes," says the CSIS's
> Anderson, who recommends that if you think you are near a potential
> terrorist target, it may make sense to keep extra clothes, shoes, soap
> and shampoo on hand.
> Says Zielinski: "The first thing [is] to try to get as much off as you
> can, get the clothes off of you and put them in a trash bag. Then take a
> Can you drink the water?
> There may be some contamination of water and food in some areas. "You
> can drink it, but there are definite issues there," warns Anderson,
> explaining that although a good rain would help clear contamination, the
> runoff might affect the groundwater supply.
> Bottled water might be the safe way to go until authorities have tested
> drinking water, he says.
> Would a gas mask help any?
> Gas masks, experts say, may help in protecting against "particulate
> matter," since radiation attaches to particles in the air. But when you
> get much beyond the area of the blast, the dust is going to dissipate
> quickly anyway. "I'm not not sure it would make a difference," says
> Should we stock up on potassium iodide?
> Again, the solution and the problem may not match well in a dirty-bomb
> attack, experts say. Potassium iodide protects the thyroid gland from
> absorbing radioactive isotope of iodine -- a component of radioactive
> fallout that causes radiation sickness.
> "I'm not sure we're going to get to the point where we will have many
> people, if any, suffering from radiation sickness," says Anderson.
> How likely is an attack?
> Many experts believe that terrorists already have the crude radioactive
> materials needed and that a dirty bomb attack is one of the more likely
> terrorist scenarios -- some even say "inevitable." But Anderson cautions
> that "it's a simple plan that is still reasonably difficult and
> complicated to coordinate."
> But the biggest problem in making a dirty bomb is that even if you find
> all the parts, assembling them can kill you. True, some terrorists are
> already suicidal. Still, "first you've got to find it, then you've got
> to carry it around," says Zielinski. "By the time I get it, move it to a
> site that is secure and grind it, I've probably already lost several
> To make and transport a dirty bomb safely would require a lead container
> or shielding that makes it nearly impossible to move. Handling the
> material can cause burns on the hands and body, even through a backpack.
> And making a bomb without a shield means almost certain death from the
> concentrated radiation levels of a radioactive rod or "clump."
> What do we have to fear?
> Experts say the answer is fear itself. Dirty bombs can be as devastating
> as any conventional bomb. People will die in a dirty-bomb attack. But
> they believe very few people will die or get sick from its radiation.
> And the radiation is the terrorist wild card for causing panic and
> psychological trauma.
> Experts are concerned that public panic is the biggest risk. "It stems
> from our society's inherent fear of radiation," says Anderson,
> explaining that he's not discounting the tremendous social and economic
> implications of a contaminated area in an urban center.
> The blast area, he says, could be off-limits for several months during
> intense cleanup efforts, and that could disrupt the local economy.
> Still, "a lot of this stuff, you just take a big fire hose out and you
> wash it down," says Larsen. "It's a heavy metal, so it goes to the
> bottom of the river. It shouldn't be too much problem. So then we have
> low levels of radiation. That's not as bad as smoking cigarettes. I'd
> rather be a half-mile from a dirty bomb site than smoke cigarettes."
> C 2002 The Washington Post Company
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