In September of 1987 a Brazilian scrap yard worker in the town of Goiaina pried open a canister that had been dumped in the junk yard he worked in. Inside the container was a mesmerizing, sparkling, blue powder. Soon the residents of Goiaina who lived near the yard caught wind of the worker’s mysterious discovery. The canister began making its way from block to block, house to house. Residents touched the blue powder, ran it through their fingers and marveled at its phosphorescence. A six year old child played with it and rubbed it into her hair. It made her hair glow.
What none of Goiaina’s residents knew at the time was that the beautiful blue dust they were passing around; that sparkling azure powder that made a young girl’s hair glow, was deadly radioactive Cesium.
The canister containing the Cesium had been looted from an abandoned nearby cancer treatment facility. Within a few days four people, including the child whose hair had glowed, were dead. Within weeks the Brazilian authorities demolished 85 contaminated homes in order to contain the radiation that had been unleashed by the deadly curiosity of Goiaina’s residents.
If a similar amount of Cesium fell into the hands of modern terrorists, was fashioned into a so-called “dirty” bomb and detonated in a major Western city, the event would make the incident in Goiaina pale in comparison.
A dirty bomb is relatively easy to construct. It is made by packing low-grade radioactive material around a conventional explosive charge. When the charge is detonated, the radioactive material packed in and around it pulverizes into dust and spreads through the air. Anything this dust contacts becomes radioactively contaminated.
People in the immediate area of a detonating dirty bomb would likely be killed or injured by the conventional explosion itself and not by exposure to radiation, though exposure to the radioactive dust in high enough concentrations could also cause death. More likely, the radioactivity released by a dirty bomb would cause an increase in cancer rates among those who survived the conventional explosion but came into contact with the radioactive dust.
Though the cleanup of a dirty bomb attack would be time consuming and expensive and the damage inflicted by one more economic than physical, the most devastating effect on a society in which one is detonated is likely to be psychological.
The words “nuclear” and “radioactivity” elicit strong negative reactions from most people even when mentioned in a benign context. Thoughts of invisible particles wafting through the air emitting radiation and silently wrecking the ability of human cells to properly replicate rightly terrify Americans. It is for this reason that the dirty bomb is a dream weapon for terrorists-it has the ability to cause maximum psychological terror for a small investment in time and materials. It is also in keeping with what, so far, has been the Islamist’s affinity for parlaying the use of low-tech objects and devices into maximum psychological terror.
This week, journalist Joseph Farah sparked intense discussion by asserting that not only had Islamist terrorists procured conventional nuclear weapons in the form of so-called suitcase bombs, they were close to detonating them in major U.S. cities. Echoing earlier similar assertions by writer Paul Williams, Farah laid out a scenario describing the inevitability of a conventional nuclear attack on the U.S. using such bombs. Though Farah’s scenario is possible, there are many daunting technical difficulties involved in procuring viable suitcase bombs, maintaining them, and preparing them for use. The nature of these difficulties makes great the possibility that terrorists planning a suitcase bomb attack will be discovered before they can carry it out.
A conventional nuclear weapon is a highly complex, tight-tolerance piece of machinery. It is nearly impossible to build one without highly specialized facilities, a quantity of fissionable material (which is almost impossible to procure), and an impressive knowledge of physics coupled with prodigious engineering skills. It is an extremely dangerous process to manufacture and assemble one.
On the other hand, constructing a dirty bomb is relatively simple. Any radioactive material ground up to maximize its dispersion will do, and a crude explosive charge is sufficient to disperse that material. The maker need only shield himself from an overdose of radiation and avoid blowing himself up while preparing the explosive charge.
Simply put, radium from an obsolete watch-dial duct-taped to a hand grenade makes a crude (though not very effective) “dirty” bomb
In the U.S., more than 2 million radioactive sources are possessed by 157,000 licensed users. Approximately 400 of these sources are lost or stolen every year. The situation is far worse in the former Soviet Union, where large quantities of radioactive material routinely slip past the Russian government.
It is reasonable to assume that some of this material has ended up in the hands of Islamists, who have a long history of attempting to procure it.
There is only one reason for them wanting to possess it. And it is a reason they hope will frighten us into both appeasing them and accepting their murderous agenda.
Rocco DiPippo, a freelance political writer publishes The Autonomist blog and contributes to David Horowitz’s Moonbat Central blog.