Rocky Mountain News
May 3, 2004
'Dirty bomb' cleanup
Decontamination would be tougher than with anthrax
By Jim Erickson, Rocky Mountain News
The monumental challenges facing cleanup crews after a "dirty bomb" attack would dwarf the multimillion-dollar decontamination effort that followed the 2001 anthrax- letter assaults.
Entire neighborhoods would have to be abandoned or demolished if decontamination efforts failed to quell public fears after detonation of a radiological dispersal device - better known as a dirty bomb.
Daily commerce would grind to a halt in the affected area, and real estate values would plummet, said Jaime Yassif, one of the authors of a Federation of American Scientists dirty-bomb study being released this week at a national physics meeting in Denver.
"A radiological weapon is not a weapon of mass destruction. It would not kill large numbers of people," Yassif said Sunday at the American Physical Society meeting.
"It is primarily a weapon of economic and psychological disruption," she said. "After the panic from a dirty-bomb attack subsides, public refusal to return to contaminated urban areas could cause severe economic damage."
A dirty bomb consists of a conventional explosive, such as dynamite, packaged with radioactive material that scatters when the bomb explodes. A dirty bomb is not an atomic bomb.
Dirty bombs have not been used by terrorists, but recent events have raised concerns about the possibility of an attack with radioactive materials.
In most instances, the conventional explosive in a dirty bomb would kill and injure more people than the radiation would, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The blast would be over in an instant, but the psychological affects could be long-lasting.
"It would be an economic disaster of unbelievable consequences," said physicist Peter Zimmerman of King's College in London.
Cleaning the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., after the 2001 anthrax letter attacks took several months and cost tens of millions of dollars, Yassif said. Decontaminating entire city blocks after a dirty bomb attack would require a Herculean effort "many times larger," she said.
Zimmerman and Yassif participated in a Sunday afternoon news briefing at the Adam's Mark hotel. About 1,000 physicists are gathered there for this week's meeting.
In its dirty-bomb study, the Federation of American Scientists calls for the creation of a comprehensive national decontamination strategy to address dirty-bomb attacks.
No such plan exists, though the federal Department of Homeland Security is funding research into new decontamination techniques, Yassif said.
"We want to be ready to go," Yassif said.