Nuclear Weapons are the most well known example of radiological weapons. First developed by the United States during World War II, nuclear weapons are extremely explosive bombs that split atoms into pieces, releasing a huge amount of radioactive energy. Nuclear weapons present two dangers: the damage created by the explosion itself and its released radiation, and the radioactive material that would remain after the explosion. However, nuclear weapons are extremely difficult to build or buy-only a very small handful of nations have been able to obtain them. Furthermore, the international community is extremely concerned about their use and they are one of the most tightly protected and monitored items in the modern world. Therefore, the risk of a terrorist attack utilizing nuclear weapons is extremely small.
Another potential form of radiological terrorism is an attack on a nuclear facility, such as a nuclear power plant or truck transporting radioactive material. Such an attack would have consequences similar to a dirty bomb attack, which is described below.
Dirty Bombs: Another type of radiological weapon that has been in the news more recently is a so-called ‘dirty bomb.’ A dirty bomb is an explosive device with radioactive materials packed in or around it to spread radiation into the area surrounding the bomb.
There are many factors that limit the potential for a radiological or dirty bomb attack. Facilities that contain a large amount of radioactive material, such as nuclear power plants, are highly secure and their radiation is well contained. It would be very difficult to obtain enough radiological material to cause a significant amount of damage from a dirty bomb attack. The real danger of radiological weapons lies in the potential for people to react in fear and therefore create greater danger than actually present in the attack itself.
Fact versus Fiction about Radiation and Dirty Bombs
Many Americans fear radiation simply because it is unknown. Radiation can be dangerous in large amounts, but it can also be used to do a lot of helpful things: it is used to help doctors diagnose many medical problems, it can be used in cancer therapy, and it can be used for energy.
Since it would be extremely difficult for a terrorist to obtain an amount of radiation that would be very powerful or harmful, and since the radiation from a dirty bomb would be spread out over a large area after an explosion, the dose of radiation that each person in the surrounding area would receive would likely be so low that it would not be a cause for any concern. We naturally receive radiation all the time from sources like the sun, and the dose that a victim of a dirty bomb would receive would be no more than the typical dose we receive every year – not enough to result in a significant increase in the risk of cancer.
What concerns city and state officials most is the possibility of negative consequences resulting from panic, which would probably do more harm than the dirty bomb itself. Panic could lead to traffic accidents or stampedes resulting from anxious citizens fleeing the city, as well as stress and anxiety-related health problems. The key to safety is thus education: citizens who know their risks are less likely to panic and more likely to stay safe.