The ISIS Dirty Bomb Is NOT Nuclear Science, But It Will Be Large And Very Radioactive

How Dirty Bombs Work

dirty bomb panic
by Tom Harris | How Stuff Works

A dirty bomb is an explosive designed to spread dangerous radioactive material over a wide area. When people hear “bomb” and “radioactive” in the ­same sentence, their minds jump to nuclear war pretty quickly. But it turns out that a dirty bomb’s primary destructive power would probably be panic, not radiation damage.

A dirty bomb is much closer in power to an ordinary explosive than it is to the widespread destructive force of a nuclear bomb. But the fear of contamination could be debilitating, in the same way that 2001’s anthrax scare in the United States terrorized much of the American populace, even though only a few people were infected.

In this article, we’ll find out what dirty bombs are and what they do. We’ll also explore what might happen if one actually went off in a public area, and consider some of the consequences of this sort of attack.
Conceptually, a dirty bomb (or radiological dispersion bomb) is a very simple device. It’s a conventional explosive, such as TNT (trinitrotoluene), packaged with radioactive material. It’s a lot cruder and cheaper than a nuclear bomb, and it’s also a lot less effective. But it does have the combination of explosive de­struction and radiation damage.

High explosives inflict damage with rapidly expanding, very hot gas. The basic idea of a dirty bomb is to use the gas expansion as a means of propelling radioactive material over a wide area rather than as a destructive force in its own right. When the explosive goes off, the radioactive material spreads in a sort of dust cloud, carried by the wind, that reaches a wider area than the explosion itself.

The long-term destructive force of the bomb would be ionizing radiation from the radioactive material. Ionizing radiation, which includes alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays and X-rays, is radiation that has enough energy to knock an orbital electron off of an atom. Losing an electron throws off the balance between the atom’s positively charged protons and negatively charged electrons, giving the atom a net electrical charge (the atom becomes an ion). The free electron may collide with other atoms to create more ions. (See How Atoms Work for more information on subatomic particles.)

If this happens in a person’s body, the ion can cause a lot of serious problems, because an ion’s electrical charge may lead to unnatural chemical reactions inside cells. Among other things, the charge can break DNA chains. A cell with a broken strand of DNA will either die or the DNA will develop a mutation. If a lot of cells die, the body can develop various diseases. If the DNA mutates, a cell may become cancerous, and this cancer may spread. Ionization radiation may also cause cells to malfunction, resulting in a wide variety of symptoms collectively referred to as radiation sickness. Radiation sickness can be deadly, but people can survive it, particularly if they receive a bone marrow transplant.

In a dirty bomb, the ionizing radiation would come from radioactive isotopes (also called radioisotopes). Radioactive isotopes are simply atoms that decay over time. In other words, the arrangement of protons, neutrons and electrons that make up the atom gradually changes, forming different atoms. This radioactive decay releases a lot of energy in the form of ionizing radiation. (See How Nuclear Radiation Works for details on radiation and radioactive isotopes.)

We’re exposed to small doses of ionizing radiation all the time — it comes from outer space, it comes from natural radioactive isotopes, it comes from X-ray machines. This radiation can and does cause cancer, but the risk is relatively low because you only encounter it in very small doses.

A dirty bomb would boost the radiation level above normal levels, increasing the risk of cancer and radiation sickness to some degree. Most likely, it wouldn’t kill many people right away, but it could possibly kill people years down the road. ­

 Dirty Bomb Possibilities

There is a huge range of possible dirty bomb designs. Different explosive materials, applied in different quantities, would generate explosions of varying sizes, and different types and quantities of radioactive material would contaminate an area to different degrees. Some designs include:

The builders of these bombs wouldn’t have much trouble getting their hands on high explosives — dynamite is readily available, and TNT isn’t too hard to come by. The main limitation on the bomb would be the available radioactive material.

It’s not nearly as accessible as explosive material, but there are a number of sources for radioactive material around the world. For example:

  • Hospitals use small quantities of radioactive material, such as cesium-137, in nuclear medicine.
  • Universities use similar materials to conduct scientific research.
  • Food irradiation plants use radiation from cobalt-60 to kill harmful bacteria on food. (See CDC: Frequently Asked Questions about Food Irradiation for more information.)
  • Natural radioactive uranium isotopes are mined for use in nuclear energy. Terrorists could conceivably acquire uranium from various mines in Africa.
  • There are a number of abandoned “nuclear batteries” scattered around the former Soviet Union. These portable thermoelectric generators contain a sizable amount of strontium-90, a highly potent radioactive isotope. (Check out Makings of a ‘Dirty Bomb’ for more information.)
  • People could also collect spent radioactive fuel from Russian reactors, which have been abandoned in old nuclear submarines, among other places.
  • They could also put something together using various low-level radioactive materials available to anybody, such as the radioactive material in smoke alarms. Tale of the Radioactive Boy Scout is good evidence that this is a very real possibility.

The big question, of course, is what would actually happen if someone set off a bomb containing any of this material. As it turns out, there isn’t a clear answer. Ask 10 different experts and you’ll probably get 10 slightly different answers. In the next section, we’ll explore the various possible scenarios.

Dirty Bomb Damage

It’s difficult to predict the extent of a dirty bomb’s damage because there are a huge number of variables at work. The type and quantity of the explosives and radioactive material make a big difference, of course, but completely random things like wind speed would also have an effect. There’s also a lot of debate on what the long-term health effects would be.

The most likely dirty bomb would contain a small or medium amount of explosives (10 to 50 pounds [4.5 – 23 kg] of TNT, for example) with a small amount of low-level radioactive material (say a sample of cesium-137 or cobalt-60 from a university lab).

This sort of bomb wouldn’t be terribly destructive. Most likely, any immediate deaths (and all property damage) would be from the explosive itself rather than the radiation. The explosive would act as a propellant force for the radioactive material. A radioactive dust cloud would extend well beyond the explosion site, possibly covering several square miles. Bombs containing radioactive waste from nuclear power plants or portable nuclear generators would inflict more damage, but terrorists would be less likely to use them because they are harder to handle. The bombers could die from exposure just building and transporting the bomb.

If people got rid of contaminated clothes, showered and evacuated the area within a day or so of a small or medium blast, they would probably be fine. The bomb would boost radiation levels above the normal, “safe” level, but not by a lot. In the short term, the human body could handle this increased exposure fairly easily. People very close to the blast could conceivably suffer radiation sickness and might require hospital care.

The main concern would be prolonged exposure. Many radioactive isotopes bind with other materials, including concrete and metal, extremely well. This would make it nearly impossible to completely remove the material without demolishing all contaminated structures. Clean-up crews could wash away a lot of the radioactive material, but a small amount would probably remain in the city for many years, even decades. Anybody living there would be exposed regularly to this radiation, which could conceivably cause cancer.

The question is, would this make a significant health difference? There are two schools of thought on this issue. Many experts have asserted that the health risks would be negligible if the government spent a few weeks or months on clean-up. The radiation level would be only marginally higher than normal, acceptable levels, and it would not significantly increase the risk of developing cancer. (See “Dirty Bombs” Much More Likely to Create Fear than Cause Cancer from the American Institute of Physics for more on this viewpoint.)

The other school of thought asserts that such an attack could make a city uninhabitable for years or decades. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) recently prepared a report detailing three representative scenarios of a dirty bomb attack. In all three scenarios, the FAS asserts that the risk of cancer in some contaminated areas would be so high that the government would desert or demolish the area. These predictions are based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s current guidelines for safe radiation levels. (Check out Dirty Bombs: Response to a Threat for the FAS’ predicted scenarios.)

There’s no precedent for a dirty bomb attack, but we can learn from other incidents of radioactive contamination. Nagasaki and Hiroshima were both exposed to a much larger amount of radioactive material, from an actual nuclear blast, and today, they’re both considered completely safe for habitation. On the other hand, there are still areas around Chernobyl that are considered unsafe because of high radioactivity.

No matter their opinion on the long-term health risks, most experts agree that a dirty bomb would be more of a disruptive weapon than a destructive weapon. The news of radioactive contamination would probably cause widespread panic, and the rush to evacuate the targeted city could actually cause more damage than the bomb itself. A country’s economy could also take a dive, especially if the bomb went off in major city. Even if the government did assure the public that the area was inhabitable, real estate values and tourism could plummet.

This is the precise reason dirty bombs are such an attractive weapon to terrorists. Their main goal is to get people’s attention and inspire terror, two things a dirty bomb would certainly accomplish.

For much more information on dirty bombs, including possible scenarios for such an attack, check out the links on the next page.

The Pakistani Nuclear Threat: The Third Horn (Daniel 8:8)

Adnan R. Khan

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Pakistan India Nukes
Last week was supposed to offer a noteworthy moment in the history of nuclear disarmament. Iranian negotiators met in Vienna with leaders from the United States, Russia, France, China, the U.K. and Germany, and got down to the tricky business of finding a way out of a growing nuclear standoff. It was touted as the most promising opportunity in years to reach a deal that would, once and for all, put the brakes on what many fear are Iran’s secret plans to build a nuclear bomb.

That deal, however, never materialized. When the talks ended on Nov. 24, the best U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry could offer was some promising rhetoric: “Today, we are closer to a deal that would make the entire world . . . safer and more secure,” he said.

But while the world’s major powers fretted over Iran’s “breakout” potential—the time it would take to produce enough fissile material to build one nuclear device—a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, timed to come out during the Vienna talks, warned that other countries have not only broken out, but appear to be running wild. This is the reality of the “second nuclear age,” the report stated. Even as the traditional nuclear powers reduce their stockpiles, emergent states in Asia—Pakistan and India, in particular, but also North Korea and China—are becoming increasingly tangled in a new arms race, one that is much more complex and difficult to control than what the world witnessed in the second half of the 20th century.

According to the report, Pakistan currently has the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal, with enough fissile material to build 120 bombs and the potential to build at least 80 more by 2020. India has the ability to build 110 nuclear devices, but is also reported to have ramped up its production capacity.

Iran, according to the report, is only one piece in an increasingly complex nuclear puzzle. There is reason to be concerned about its nuclear program, of course. A brooding Middle Eastern Cold War pitting Shia-led Iran against Sunni Saudi Arabia poses some serious international security threats. If Iran does “break out,” the experts say, the Saudis will be sure to follow, igniting another nuclear arms race in what is the most unstable region in the world. (Pakistan’s nuclear program, reportedly, owes its success to Saudi funding.)

More worrying for the near term, however, is the existing arms race. While Indian and Pakistani arsenals are paltry compared to the word’s nuclear powerhouses (Russia and the United States have thousands of strategic warheads deployed), the threat they pose to global security is more dire, considering the geopolitical challenges of the region. The potential for nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan has hovered over the world since 1998, when Pakistan first entered the nuclear club. The two rivals have fought three conventional wars since 1947 and have come dangerously close to a fourth.

Over the past 15 years, the environment has shifted dramatically. Pakistan’s struggle with Islamist extremism and its consequences for India, including a devastating 2008 shooting rampage in Mumbai, are redefining the military landscape. India has moved away from its defensive posture and embraced a more “proactive strategy,” says Walter Ladwig, assistant professor in the department of war studies at King’s College London. “Their new military doctrine, originally called Cold Start, has been evolving since 2003,” he says. “It remains the foundation of India’s military procurement, including modernizing its conventional capabilities to allow for a more mobile and offensive response against Pakistan in the event of another attack inside India.”

Pakistan, concerned by the fact that it cannot compete in conventional military terms against a much richer India, has responded by developing its nuclear capability to include tactical warheads, giving it the ability to strike back with precision nuclear weapons targeting advancing Indian troops, without resorting to all-out nuclear war. “India’s strategy has created a lot of consternation in Pakistan,” says Ladwig, who has written extensively on the evolution of India’s military. “The U.S. has put pressure on India to back away from the Cold Start strategy.”

While Indian authorities have disavowed the Cold Start name, the strategy itself remains intact, Ladwig adds, but will take many years to reach operational levels. The Indian army, he says, is still too outdated to achieve the desired goals of a Cold Start offensive at the moment, but, 10 or 15 years down the road, things could change dramatically.

If that happens, which appears likely, considering India’s current rate of weapons procurement, it would push the nuclear Armageddon clock forward significantly, warn experts such as Ladwig and the authors of the Council on Foreign Relations report. The chain of events that could lead to a nuclear confrontation are relatively straightforward: In the event of a large-scale terrorist attack in India blamed on Pakistan-based militants, Indian authorities would demand action (as they did following the Mumbai attack). Pakistan would almost certainly deny involvement. Under Cold Start, India would (unlike after Mumbai) launch a military strike inside Pakistan. The goal would be to disorient the Pakistanis and, before they could recover, control a buffer zone inside Pakistan 10 to 15 km wide—providing it a strong position for any negotiations.

But, as Ladwig points out, “an operational Cold Start capability could lead Pakistan to lower its nuclear red line, put its nuclear weapons on a higher state of readiness, develop tactical nuclear weapons or undertake some equally destabilizing course of action.” For Pakistani generals, Cold Start might not look like a limited operation, but rather a prelude to a wider invasion or a tactic to subjugate Pakistan to India’s will. Neither side would want to use its nuclear weapons, but the trigger could be as simple as an overzealous Pakistani artillery commander armed with a tactical nuke, or a miscommunication on the Indian side.

For the time being, the potential for that scenario to play out remains low, says retired colonel Baseer Malik, a military analyst in Islamabad. “India knows it outmatches Pakistan in conventional terms,” he says. “But, in terms of nuclear, it is a different story. India would not be so short-sighted as to provoke Pakistan in this way. They know how quickly things could escalate.”

The threat of escalation now has as much to do with advances in conventional weapons as it does with nuclear imbalances. “Strategic stability is no longer just a product of the interaction between comparable nuclear forces,” the Council on Foreign Relations report says, “but, increasingly, between nuclear forces and non-nuclear technologies, such as missile defences, anti-satellite weapons, conventional precision-strike weapons, and cyberweapons.”

Thankfully, the worst-case scenario for India and Pakistan is not likely to play out any time soon. India’s modernization of its conventional arsenal is still in its infancy, says Ladwig. But as long as it aggressively pursues advanced weaponry, Pakistan will feel threatened and respond with the expansion of its nuclear option. With no end in sight to the animosity between the two countries, the end result can only be bad.

Iranian Horn Shows It’s Military Might In Iraq (Daniel 8:3)

Iranian air force bombs Isis targets in Iraq, says Pentagon


Iran’s air force has attacked targets of Islamic State (Isis) in eastern Iraq, the Pentagon has said.
Tehran has denied carrying out raids and acting in coordination with the US, which is leading a western-Arab coalition to defeat the jihadi group.

The Pentagon said air strikes in Iraq’s Diyala province were the first since Isis captured the Iraqi city of Mosul in June.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, insisted that the US has not coordinated military activities with Iran. He said the US continued to fly its own missions over Iraq and that it was up to the Iraqi government to avoid conflicts in its own airspace.

“Nothing has changed about our policy of not coordinating military activity with the Iranians,” Kirby told reporters in Washington.

A senior Iranian official said no raids had been carried out and Tehran had no intention of cooperating with Washington.

“Iran has never been involved in any air strikes against Daesh [Isis] targets in Iraq. Any cooperation in such strikes with America is also out of question for Iran,” the senior official told Reuters.

In Tehran, the deputy chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, Brigadier-General Massoud Jazayeri also denied any collaboration. Iran considered the US responsible for Iraq’s “unrest and problems”, he said, adding that the US would “definitely not have a place in the future of that country”.

Kirby’s comments followed reports that American-made F4 Phantom jets from the Iranian air force had been targeting Isis positions in Diyala. Jane’s Defence Weekly identified al-Jazeera footage of a jet flying over Iraq as an Iranian Phantom.

It had earlier been reported that Iran sent three Su-25 fighter jets to Iraq designed for close support of ground troops and that Iranian pilots flew Iraqi aircraft on combat missions.

The anti-Isis campaign has raised the intriguing possibility that the US and Iran, enemies since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, might work together against a common foe. The model has been seen as their brief cooperation against al-Qaida in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. Talks about Iraq have taken place in the margins of the so-far inconclusive international negotiations about Iran’s nuclear programme.

But the US has repeatedly denied coordinating with Iran. Last month, following a personal letter sent by President Barack Obama to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, the US national security adviser, Susan Rice, said that “we are in no way engaged in any coordination – military coordination – with Iran on countering Isil [another name for Isis]”.

The two countries remain at odds over the crisis in Syria, with the US calling for the removal of Bashar al-Assad and backing rebel forces. Iran, displaying far greater commitment, provides military and financial support for his regime. Tacit cooperation between Washington and Tehran over Iraq is seen as a classic example of the notion of “my enemy’s enemy becoming my friend”. Key US allies in the Middle East, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, fear any kind of US-Iranian rapprochement.

The US has not invited Iran to join the coalition fighting Isis, and Iran has said it would not join in any case. The grouping includes the UK, France and Australia as well as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE and Bahrain – Sunni Arab states which are deeply suspicious of Iran’s regional ambitions.Iran has been actively involved in supporting the Shia-led Baghdad government and in recent weeks has gradually raised the profile of its semi-covert presence in Iraq, especially the activities of General Qasim Suleimani, commander of the al-Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards Corps. Suleimani has coordinated the defence of Baghdad and worked with Shia miltias and Kurdish troops.

The US-led air campaign against Isis began on 8 August in Iraq and was extended into Syria in September. But several countries, including the UK, which operate in Iraq, refuse to do so in Syria – highlighting confusion about overall strategy.

News of Iran’s apparently widening role emerged as minsters from the coalition met at the Nato HQ in Brussels for a summit chaired by the US secretary of state, John Kerry.

Speaking at the summit, Kerry said the US-led coalition had inflicted serious damage on Isis, but that the fight against the militants could take years.

“We recognise the hard work that remains to be done,” Kerry said. “Our commitment will be measured most likely in years, but our efforts are already having a significant impact.”

“We will engage in this campaign for as long as it takes to prevail,” he added.

Talks are focusing on military strategy as well as ways to stem the flow of foreign fighters joining Isis and how to counter its slick propaganda, disseminated on social media. The meeting will discuss ways to send “counter-messages” to de-legitimise Isis, a senior US state department official told AFP.