Easy theft: radioactive bomb parts
Stolen commercial radioactive devices could be used to make 'dirty bombs.'
As he swung open the back door of his pawnshop recently in Prichard, Ala., there it was: a silvery, lunch-box-sized industrial device with yellow stickers that blared "CAUTION RADIOACTIVE."Skip to next paragraph
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"It was just sittin' in a five-gallon bucket," says the shop's owner in a syrupy drawl. Police determined the device used by repair crews to check for cracks in pipe welds had been stolen from a pipeline-company truck six months earlier in nearby Mobile.
But the unusual thing about this story isn't that the device was stolen. It's that it was found.
That's because roughly 2 million small-but-valuable radioactive contraptions are used in the US in everything from construction to healthcare to scientific research. And every year, hundreds of them are lost, stolen, even abandoned. Most are never retrieved, and 30,000 are unaccounted for, according to some estimates.
In the post-Sept. 11 era, that's giving experts cause for concern: If these devices can turn up at an Alabama pawnshop, they could just as easily be hoarded by terrorists to create "dirty bombs" conventional explosives laced with radioactive material.
"If you were going around snatching these smaller devices over a period of years and putting them all in a truck bomb, it could be as powerful as a bomb with a single, big radiation source," says Edwin Lyman, of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington.
Clearly, not all small radioactive items would work as dirty-bomb ammunition the radiation many emit is extremely weak. Still, terrorists could create a dangerous weapon by combining several dozen minor sources with a simple explosive, says Friedrich Steinhausler, a Stanford University nuclear physicist.
The damage from a "dirty bomb" would depend on many things, including the strength of the explosive, the amount of radioactive material, and how far winds would spread the toxic particles. Experts say such bombs could cause fatalities in the immediate area of detonation and a range of health complications in a wider area. Their real insidiousness would be in the low or moderate levels of radiation spread, possibly requiring whole sections of a city to be abandoned for years.
That's because radiation cleanup is, at best, expensive and difficult sometimes impossible. In all, rather than being a "weapon of mass destruction," a "dirty bomb" is more like a "weapon of mass disturbance," says Dr. Steinhausler.
The threat has rattled federal regulators. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is reviewing how the devices are monitored.
"We're looking at requiring licensees to increase security," says John Hickey, chief of the NRC division that oversees the devices.
But new measures might only include better locks and stronger storage facilities, and some critics worry that isn't enough. In general, they fault the NRC for overlooking the smaller radiation devices and focusing instead on safety at higher-profile nuclear plants.
The devices in question include practically harmless emergency-exit signs that rely on radioactive isotope for power rather than electricity, which can fail. If broken open, these could expose a person to radiation less intense than a dentist's X-ray. By contrast, the pencil-sized rods used to irradiate food are so dangerous that direct exposure could be quickly fatal, say experts. (This also makes stealing them very difficult.)