Call me cynical, but my first thought when I read this story was:
“Oh, so that's
how it's gonna be pulled off — a
'dirty bomb' at the Democratic National Convention:”
Terrorists are “all but
certain” to set off a radiological weapon in the United States,
because it will take authorities too many years to track and secure
the radioactive materials of such “dirty bombs,” a team
of nuclear researchers has concluded.
The team also examined the
potential for terrorists to steal or build a nuclear weapon but
found that less likely than the construction of a radiological
dispersal device, or dirty bomb.
Unlike warheads designed to kill
and destroy through a huge nuclear blast, these radiation weapons —
which thus far no one has employed — would rely on conventional
explosives to blow radioactive material far and wide. A successful
bomb could make a section of a city uninhabitable for years.
Now hold on there, breathless media. Things probably won't be as
bad as all that. A “dirty bomb” is certainly nothing to
look forward to, but it's hardly the unprecedented disaster you guys
are making it out to be.
And, in fact, you're completely wrong about at least one thing; at
least one nation has “employed” a “radiological
dispersal device,” as you so quaintly put it.
Namely, it was us ... and no, I don't mean Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
Doesn't anybody remember the dramatic events that transpired on the
morning of January 17, 1966?
me give you a hint:
PALOMARES, Spain (AP): In a sunny
corner of the world where nothing much ever happened, Martin Moreno
climbed atop a leaking American hydrogen bomb and smiled as he tried
to pry loose a souvenir.
Oblivious to the danger, the
fruit wholesaler poked a screwdriver in a crack in the weapon as it
released plutonium, working unsuccessfully to secure his prize.
“I've never regretted that, nor have I been afraid,”
Moreno, an engaging, healthy-looking man of 68, said in recounting
that winter morning in 1966.
What the ... how in the world did a Spanish peasant manage
to get his hands on a 1.5 megaton nuclear weapon?
Well, it went something
On the morning of Jan. 17, 1966, a
routine refueling operation turned disastrous. It is believed the
B-52 flew too fast as it approached the tanker from below. The planes
collided, killing seven of 11 crew members and raining 100 tons (90
metric tons) of flaming wreckage over a 15-square mile (38
And down came the four H-bombs
aboard the B-52.
While one bomb splashed into the
sea, the other three hit the ground. None exploded — layers of
safeguards made that virtually impossible — but 7 pounds (3
kilos) of plutonium 239 were released when two bomb detonators did go
Let's repeat that last part for the folks in the back row: two of
the bomb detonators went off, resulting in the release of seven
pounds of plutonium 239 into the general area. In other words, we
didn't just drop a dirty bomb on Spain, we dropped two of
them. Big ones.
Then, compounding the problem, the US military disposed of
affected crops in the area by burning them — thus
insuring the widest plutonium dispersal pattern possible. All in all,
a 15-square-mile area — and a large population of people —
When it comes to mass irradiation, nobody can lick the enthusiasm
and thoroughness of the USAF:
Partial chemical burning of the
fissile material from the two bombs that had been blown apart by
their high explosive charges resulted in a cloud formation which was
dispersed by a 35-mph wind. Approximately 2.25 km2 of farmland was
contaminated with plutonium at levels of 50—500 ug/m2 (3-32
uCi/m2), and low levels of plutonium were detectable for a distance
of 2 miles. Initially, 630 acres of land were reported to be
contaminated; however, an additional 20 acres were subsequently
classified as contaminated due to resuspension by the wind.
I don't mind telling you folks ... if a radiological event of that
magnitude were to go off in the United States, I'd be more concerned
about Osama's ability to muster up such an enormous amount of nuclear
material, rather than the deleterious effects of the bomb itself.
Still, if the Palomares Incident is any example of what to expect from a
radiological attack, things would be bad, but hardly the apocalyptic
event everyone seems convinced it would be. As the article implies,
Señor Moreno (the plutonium-breathing bomb-jacker in the
original article) is alive and well to this day.
In fact, the entire village seems to have suffered few ill effects
from their plutonium bath, all things considered. For example,
overall cancer rates for Palomares are no higher than those of the
rest of the country.
The point is not that nukes are benign, nor that the potential of a
“dirty bomb” attack shouldn't be taken seriously.
It is a bomb, after all. It will make many people die, in
incalculably horrific and heartrending ways.
Rather, the point is that such an event would clearly be of a much
psychological magnitude than of a physical one. And I have no
doubt that there are people out there who have in place complete
contingency plans for the full
exploitation of that psychological effect.