Por Manuel Cereijo


The damage caused by a dirty bomb depends on the amount of radioactive and conventional explosive material in the bomb, as well as such factors as wind, the size of the buildings in the area attacked, and the ballistic at detonation. People in the immediate vicinity would likely die from the force of the conventional explosion itself. Some survivors of the blast might die of radiation poisoning in the weeks afterwards. Those farther away from the explosion might suffer radiation sickness in the weeks afterward but recover. Over time, risks of cancer in the affected area would rise. The attack area could be not usable again, or it may require months of intense cleanup efforts, somewhat like the fumigation of the Hart Senate Office Building after the anthrax letters attacks.


Materials are radioactive if their atomic nuclei, or centers, spontaneously disintegrate, or decay, with high-energy fragments of this disintegration flying off into the environment. Several kinds of particles can so be emitted, and are collectively referred to as radiation. The radiation produced by radioactive materials provides a low-cost way to disinfect food , sterilize medical equipment, treat certain kinds of cancer, find oil, build sensitive smoke detectors, generate electricity, etc. As a result, significant amounts of radioactive materials are stored in laboratories, food irradiation plants, oil drilling facilities, nuclear plants, medical centers, experimental reactors, and many other sites.

Sample cases

We will briefly refer to three cases to illustrate the range of impacts that could be created by malicious use of comparatively small radioactive sources: the amount of cesium that was discovered recently abandoned in North Carolina, the amount of cobalt commonly found in a single rod in a food irradiation facility, and the amount of americium typically found in oil well logging systems. In all cases we will assume that the material is released on a calm day. We assume that the material is distributed by an explosion that causes a mist of fine particles to spread downwind in a cloud. People will be exposed to radiation in several ways.

· First, they will be exposed to material in the dust inhaled during the initial passage of radiation cloud. We assume that at least 25% of the material is in particles small enough to be inhaled. The material will stay in the body and lead to a long term exposure.

· Second, anyone living in the affected area will be exposed to material deposited from the dust that settles from the cloud. They will be continuosly exposed to radiation from this dust, since the gamma rays penetrate clothing and skin.

· People would also be exposed to radiation from contaminated food and water sources.

Makings of a dirty bomb

Hundreds of small radioactive power generators are scattered across the former Soviet Union, and several other countries. These lethal devices can be used as possible components in a weapon to be used in a terrorist asymmetric strike. Radio-thermal generators, RTGs, used by the Soviets to power navigational beacons and communications equipment in remote areas, each containing up to 40,000 curies of highly radioactive strontium or cesium. Even a tiny fraction of a single curie of strontium has a high probability of causing a fatal cancer. These two materials, which cannot be used to make nuclear weapons, can be combined with conventional explosives to build a dirty bomb or radiological bomb.

There are literally hundred of places, and countries, where terrorists use and have access to materials for such a bomb, including dumping grounds for medical waste. In some RTGs, the device's core typically is a flash light-size capsule of strontium 90, surrounded by thick lead to absorb the radiation. If broken, it radiates fatal doses of radiation


The events of September 11 have created a need to very carefully assess our defense needs and ensure that the resources we spend for security are aligned with the most pressing security threats. The threat of malicious radiological attacks in the US is quite real, quite serious, and deserves a vigorous response. There is no immediate way for the public to distinguish a dirty bomb explosion from a regular explosion.

All nations classified as terrorist nations, have access to these materials, and certainly most of them, including Cuba, have the technology and capacity to build dirty bombs. Cuba has had nuclear medicine for years, two experimental nuclear reactors given by the Soviet Union, and access to materials such as cobalt, cesium, strontium, iridium, and americium.


Manuel Cereijo

MAY 2002

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Éste y otros excelentes artículos del mismo AUTOR aparecen en la REVISTA GUARACABUYA con dirección electrónica de: