Photo credit: historicair/Wikimedia Commons
By David Ropeik
Terrorism works not as much by causing death as by causing fear. Bombings and shootings kill a few, or a few dozen or few hundred or even a few thousand, but frighten millions. The unpredictable random attacks in public places leave us all feeling vulnerable, afraid, just what terrorists hope to achieve. So wouldn’t you assume that among all the things that governments are doing to reduce the danger from terrorist attacks, that a big part of that effort would be to try and minimize the fear these attacks cause? You’d think so, but with one of the most fear-inducing weapon terrorists might use, you’d be wrong.
The weapon is a dirty bomb, a conventional explosive mixed with radioactive material that would be dispersed across a community (it’s technically known as a radiological dispersal device). In the aftermath of the Paris attacks last November Belgian authorities discovered evidence that the terrorists involved in the Paris attacks were surveilling a high-level Belgian nuclear official who had access to radioactive material—not the kind that could be used to build a nuclear weapon, but perfect for a dirty bomb. And Reuters reported that radioactive material was stolen in Iraq last November from an oilfield company that was using the material to test the integrity of oil pipelines. No one knows who took it, or where it is.
The prospect of such a bomb seems terrifying, but anyone who knows the basic science of radiation biology knows that it wouldn’t cause much health damage, because the dose of radioactivity to which most people might be exposed would be very low. And experts know, based on the 65 year Life Span Study of the survivors of atomic bomb explosions in Japan, that even at extraordinarily high doses, ionizing radiation only raises lifetime cancer mortality rates a little bit—just two thirds of one percent for survivors who were within three kilometers of ground zero. And despite popular belief, it causes no genetic damage that is passed on to future generations. At the low doses most people might get from a dirty bomb, the health risk is infinitesimal. Not zero, but tiny.
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