Dec 19 2006

The Dirty Polonium Bomb

I am loath, like most, to discuss technical possibilities related to terrorist attacks because they can educate the terrorists and give them ideas. At times it leaves me to debate with one hand behind my back – but so be it. But once the media reports then the genie is out of the bottle and I can at least point to the reporting as an indication of what is plausible.

So let’s remember that the amount of Polonium-210 that killed Litvinenko was the size of a splinter of a grain of salt. Something small enough to float lazily down to earth as dust particles do in front of a sunny window. And let’s recall that to smuggle a dust particle into the UK is trivial, so one wonders what amount would require three rounds to bring into the UK – destined to points elsewhere. And then read this NY Times article about the possibilities of a Polonium Dirty Bomb

The terrorist’s solution lies in getting very finely divided polonium into the air where people can breathe it. Without giving away any information damaging to national security, I see several fairly simple ways to accomplish this: burn the material, blow it up, dissolve it in a lot of water or pulverize it to a size so small that the particles can float in the air and lodge in the lungs.

It would be unwise for me to dwell on the details of just how one goes about getting a hot enough fire or breaking polonium into extremely fine “dust.” In the end, however, the radioactive material will appear like the dust from an explosion, or the smoke from a fire. My point is to demonstrate the urgent need for new thinking in the regulatory arena, not to give away important information.

Air containing such radioactive debris would appear smoky or dusty, and be dangerous to breathe. A few breaths might easily be enough to sicken a victim, and in some cases to kill. A smoky bomb exploded in a packed arena or on a crowded street could kill dozens or hundreds. It would set off a radiological emergency of a kind not seen before in the United States, and the number of people requiring life support or palliative care until death would overwhelm the number of beds now available for treating victims of radiation. First responders dashing unprotected into the cloud from a smoky bomb might be among the worst wounded. Fire and police departments around the country will need alpha radiation detectors, since the counters they carry now cannot see alphas.

Some of the steps involved with making a good smoky bomb from polonium would be dangerous for the terrorists involved, and might cost them their lives. That, unfortunately, no longer seems like a very high barrier.

It is definitely time to rethink our policies and protective measures, and to find out how much Polonium was smuggled into the UK in October – and where it was headed.

8 responses so far

8 Responses to “The Dirty Polonium Bomb”

  1. Lizarde1 says:

    So why bother with polonium in a dirty bomb? Here’s the answer:

    Dirty bombs based on gamma emitters, analysts have learned, can’t kill very many people. Mr. Litvinenko’s death tells us that “smoky bombs” based on alpha emitters very well could. (NY Times linked above)

  2. mrmeangenes says:

    Tempting as it might seem, Po-210 is probably a poor choice for a dirty bomb. Its uses would seem to be (a) as an initiator for a nuke;
    (b) regular commercial/industrial applications.

    Much has been said (and I’ve repeated it) about the high black market price of this stuff; but, if it could be purchased at half of the regular going price,many otherwise legitimate companies would buy up as much as you could sell them.

    We perhaps misunderstand the cost of a “mafayeh” bribe in the former USSR. We tend to think in terms of million dollar bribes, when a few thousand + the standard “mafayeh” offer: “Silver or Lead ?” would do. (The person to be bribed is handed a silver coin and a lead bullet and asked to choose.If the silver is refused,the person is advised the mafayeh knows where his/her family is-and is prepared to kill them-one at a time-until the bribe is accepted.)

    The actual bribe amount in such a case need only be high enough to permit the recipient to rationalize the wisdom of his choice.

    A regular “order” for something as valuable as Polonium would be more rewarding to smugglers than a one-time deal with people who would just as soon kill you at payoff time-as a matter of simple operational security.

    The supply itself probably comes from one or more of the reactors-in Russia or Ukraine. After all, who knows precisely how much Boron was placed in the reactor, and how much Polonium was produced ? I’m sure there are minute variations-all within statistical norms-that facilitate a bit of squirreling-away .

  3. lostinthedrift says:

    MMG – why would Po be a poor choice?

  4. mrmeangenes says:

    Poor choice because it is expensive and not as effective as Cesium-which is more easily available, and which emits (if I recall correctly) gamma rays-as opposed to the softer alpha stuff from Polonium.

  5. lostinthedrift says:

    For many purposes, it would be good to have a substance that isn’t easily detectable (by Geiger meter), such as a pure alpha emitter.

  6. mrmeangenes says:

    Here’s a look at good ol’ Cesium -137. Easily obtained: just visit Cherynobl, and bring along a shovel.

    Why fool around with something like Po-210 ?

  7. mariposa says:

    Great op-ed. Thanks.

  8. lostinthedrift says:

    MMG – Cs-137 emits beta and gamma radiation. It will be detected by the Geiger meter. I guess they wouldn’t even have been able to get on the planes with the Cs that way, and certainly not survive for long unless they carried it in some very conspicuous protective gear.