Weapons of Mass Destruction – NOT!
© 2002 Gordon Prather
by Gordon Prather
to say, scaring the pants off you soccer moms and mall-rats has
become a growth industry in this country, gainfully employing thousands
of people, in and out of government. The scare-monger battle cry
is that terrorists are planning to use various weapons of mass destruction
on each and every one of you.
we will discuss "dirty" nukes.
is a "dirty" nuke? Well, it's not a nuke at all. The proper
name is a radiological dispersal device. An RDD delivered
by your hypothetical terrorist would consist of a few pounds
of powdered radioactive material packed around a few pounds of high-explosive.
The terrorist would carry the RDD into your mall and detonate the
explosive, dispersing into the air the radioactive material, which
would soon "fall-out" to the floor.
to what the scare-mongers have told you, an RDD is in no sense a
weapon of mass destruction. A few people including the terrorist
might be killed by the high explosive. But essentially no
one would be killed on the spot or die later from
RDD is not a nuke. It does not contain a critical mass of fissile
material such as uranium-235 or plutonium-239. Hence, no
uncontrolled chain reaction no nuclear explosion is
possible. The total amount of radiation emitted per unit time in
the mall is the same before, during and after the RDD detonation.
Before, however, the radiation-emitting material is concentrated.
Afterward, the radiation-emitting material is spread all over the
suppose some terrorist comes into your mall this weekend and detonates
a few pounds of high-explosive. How can you mall-rats tell whether
he has detonated an RDD or not? You can't, unless you happen to
be carrying and know how to operate both a gamma-ray
radiation detector and an alpha-particle detector. You can't see
radiological contamination. You have to trust your radiation detectors
to tell you where the radiation emitters are.
an alpha-emitter is no threat to you unless you ingest it. Alpha-radiation
won't even penetrate your outer skin. The range of a typical alpha-particle
in air is only an inch or so. That means that if you want to find
out whether the terrorist has just contaminated your mall with long-lived
alpha-particle emitters, you're going to have to get down on your
hands and knees and crawl around, holding your alpha-particle detector
about an inch above the floor.
per unit time tend to diminish very slowly, so once you've found
an area that is contaminated, it's going to stay that way for a
thousand years or so. If you want to continue working in that area,
be sure you wash your hands and feet every time you come out. It
might be simpler to just install wall-to-wall carpet over the contaminated
the other hand, gamma-rays are highly penetrating, so you won't
have to get down on your hands and knees to find their emitters.
Intense gamma-ray sources are used to treat cancer, but continuous
whole-body exposure to gamma-ray radiation levels several orders
of magnitude above normal is not good for you.
gamma-ray emissions per unit time of man-made radiological materials
tend to diminish fairly rapidly with time. So, if you detect unhealthy
gamma-ray levels in some part of your mall, put a rope around the
area, and don't spend much time inside the rope for the next 100
years or so. If you absolutely need to use that area, putting down
carpet won't help, but you can just hose the area down with about
a ton of water, further dispersing that radiological material right
down the drain.
think about it. Scaremongers to the contrary, why would a terrorist
employ an RDD to strike terror into the hearts of you soccer moms
and mall-rats if none of you had any way of knowing what he had
done? How would you know to be terror-stricken unless you had your
handy-dandy gamma-ray detector on you?
brings us back to the post-Sept. 11 growth industry. Congress is
in the process of spending billions and billions of your tax dollars
to train and equip hundreds of thousands of policemen, firemen,
doctors, nurses, school teachers and crossing-guards to rush to
the scene of a suspected terrorist event and start looking for evidence
of every imaginable chemical, biological and radiological contamination.
ones down on their hands and knees will be looking for alpha-emitters.
James Gordon Prather [send
him mail] has served as a policy-implementing official for national
security-related technical matters in the Federal Energy Agency,
the Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department
of Energy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department
of the Army. Dr. Prather also served as legislative assistant for
national security affairs to U.S. Sen. Henry Bellmon, R-Okla.
ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee and member of the
Senate Energy Committee and Appropriations Committee. Dr. Prather
had earlier worked as a nuclear weapons physicist at Lawrence Livermore
National Laboratory in California and Sandia National Laboratory
in New Mexico.