Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 6, 2011

Dealing with Dirty Bombs

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 6, 2011

Forgive the shameless self-promotion, but I have a short opinion piece on dirty bombs up at the “Power & Policy” blog.  Basically, it argues that there has been too much focus on preventing a dirty bomb attack through detection efforts.

While useful as part of an overarching strategy, detectors are likely to fail as the primary means in preventing a dirty bomb attack.  Sensors at the border are useless against radioactive materials acquired inside the U.S.  Detectors deployed along highways and other transportation routes are similarly ineffective against radiation sources stolen within the target city.  Technology currently deployed will register false alarms caused by shipments of bananas, kitty litter, and other naturally radioactive substances.  In recent years, both a retired police officer in New Hampshire and a cat in Washington State caused radiation detectors to alarm on highways due to medical treatments they received.  Needless to say, neither “radioactive” patient was a terrorist.

So what is a viable alternative strategy?

If a dirty bomb cannot be prevented, what should be done about the threat?  First, the worst radioactive ingredients should be secured.  Second, to avoid the fear that will cause the real damage of a dirty bomb, steps should be taken to prepare for an attack.  Third, decontamination plans should be developed now.


The Departments of Homeland Security and Energy have been working toward this goal. However, stricter regulations for using radioactive sources must be enacted to support this effort.


An educated and prepared public will be less likely to panic in the aftermath of a dirty bomb attack, and this will be reinforced by a well-managed reaction by first responders and elected officials.

Cleaning up:

Weeks and months after an attack, the long-term effects of radiation will need to be addressed.  Advanced decontamination techniques and technologies that can reduce the radiation levels in city neighborhoods must be developed.

It’s a strategy of deterrence where if terrorists do not achieve the desired effects by using a dirty bomb, why bother?

Taken together, these steps will prevent widespread panic and significant economic damage.  After the first dirty bomb attack fails, terrorists are unlikely to try again.

You can read the whole thing here: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/power/2011/03/04/a-better-way-to-deal-with-dirty-bomb-threats/

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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 7, 2011 @ 12:16 am

Good article Arnold and post! I think there is substantial agreement with you point of view. Perhaps the RDD threat is overstated. Cesium 138 has been identified as one source term that might be fairly readily available for an RDD-Radiological Dispersal Device.

Comment by NYC and RDD

March 7, 2011 @ 4:39 am

I have often worried about NYC and RDD. I know NYPD anti-terrorist unit deserve many kudos in their keen diligence in commitment to their many tasks 24×7, yet this RDD scenario and its aftermath will continue to be a substantial concern for those that serve us daily and we very much appreciate their professional and personal dedication to protecting those of us on Main Street USA who are going about our lives often oblivious to the bad guys walking among us – thank you!

Comment by J.

March 7, 2011 @ 8:37 am

“building a basic dirty bomb is not difficult.”

Maybe it would be more correct to say, getting components to build a basic dirty bomb is not difficult. Designing and employing an RDD to efficiently cause mass effect is somewhat more difficult. I don’t think heavy metals really disperse that easily, and grinding up radioactive material isn’t a career-enhancing job.

I’m glad to see you address the detection issue as ineffective, but I would caution against an over-reaction in preparing for a response. No one has the funds to prepare for a very low probability event where the feds will no doubt do a good deal of heavy lifting.

Comment by john comiskey

March 7, 2011 @ 8:46 am


The HBO movie The Dirty War, albeit the detonation of a crude nuclear bomb and not a dirty bomb is instructive ….and scary.

See: http://store.hbo.com/detail.php?p=100306

I had the opportunity to train at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s training center in Mercury Nevada. I learned firsthand that although unlikely, a crude nuclear device and more likely a dirty bomb is a remote possibility.

Training a cadre of professionals is one step to deal with either catastrophe. As you suggest, managing the likely public panic should be our first priority.

While participating in NYPD Counterterrorism Operations we often came upon false positive hits that were found to be persons receiving medical treatment.

NYPD as part of the Securing the Cities initiative deploys mobile and stationary radiation detectors with impressive capabilities. They are not, however, full proof and the bad guys would likely take measures to make their devices undetectable ….at least until it is too late.

The good news about an RDD is the explosion would likely negate (blow up) most of the radiation. The larger problem is managing public panic that would likely cause more deaths and injuries.

I return to civic engagement and education. Starting with K-12 education and continuing with public education campaigns we MUST create an educated populace and develop the resiliency to withstand a dirty bomb and the less likely nuclear bomb.

Final point, I conclude that the preferred terrorist use of explosives will remain the mainstay of terrorists in the near term. You simply get the best bang for your buck with a bomb. [pun intended]

Comment by Arnold Bogis

March 7, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

Great points all, thanks for reading the argument.

J, I agree with your points about the difficulty of achieving mass effect, but I was focusing on a more general problem and not thinking about the weapon in military-related terms such as efficiency. My problem was that this was a short piece lacking any explanation of phrases such as “building a basic dirty bomb.” My argument is that the fear of radiation causes the effect, so the degree to which terrorists are able to effectively disperse radioactive material is not directly correlated(though it obviously comes into play long-term–but also linked to fear). So chunks of metallic solid scattered a short distance from an explosion will not contaminate a relatively large area, but the news that a dirty bomb exploded will spread fear. Until it happens, the questions will remain concerning the results of that fear.

In terms of response, I’m not advocating what would be needed in terms of a nuclear incident. Education, basic equipment, and advanced planning that keeps confusion to a minimum would provide a solid foundation. The right type of preparation might prevent cases such as that revealed in the investigation of the 7/7 bombings where fire personnel apparently delayed approaching an attack site due to the fear of a dirty bomb.

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