The biggest danger from radiological weapons is the misplaced panic that they would cause, at least according to Richard A. Muller in an article last week (June 23rd). I see that CNN is again talking about "possible threats during 4th July" again.
Terrorists might attack the U.S. homeland again this summer, the Justice Department and the FBI warned last month. The same day, the Department of Energy announced a $450 million plan to counter terrorist nuclear weapons and dirty bombs. And shortly afterwards, the Justice Department released some details about Jose Padilla, the one-time street thug who had received extensive al Qaeda training and had hoped to explode a dirty bomb in the United States.
But according to the Justice Department announcement, al Qaeda had doubted that Padilla’s proposal to build a dirty bomb was practical. They directed him instead to blow up two apartment buildings using natural gas. They apparently felt that such an action would have a greater chance of spreading death and destruction than would a radiological weapon.
Al Qaeda was right. Perhaps that should scare you. Al Qaeda appears to understand the limitations of these devices better than do many government leaders, newspapers, and even many scientists.
Our experience with radiological weapons—the fancier name for dirty bombs—is limited. They do not require a chain reaction like fission or fusion weapons, but instead use ordinary explosives to spread pre-existing radioactive material. Saddam Hussein reportedly tested such a weapon in 1987, but abandoned the effort when he saw how poorly it worked. In 1995, Chechen rebels buried dynamite and a small amount of the radioactive isotope cesium-137 in Moscow’s Ismailovsky park. They then told a TV station where to dig it up. Perhaps they recognized the truth: that the bomb’s news value could be greater if it were discovered before it went off. For such weapons, the psychological impact can be greater than the limited harm they are likely to cause.