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WTF: A Dirty Bomb

What's in a suitcase?

On Friday, Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu announced that the politically disastrous ‘partial mobilization’ is over. With the people giving him such blowback, Putin seems to realize that the only way to get out of his corner isn’t force, but terror, Which explains Shoigu’s recent round of phone calls to defense ministers in the UK, the US, Turkey and France that he was “concerned about possible provocations by Kyiv involving the use of a dirty bomb.” Swell.

The technical term for what he’s on about is a “radiological weapon” which is not like a warhead – it is as smallish conventional explosive, packed with radioactive material. It isn’t designed to blow-up much other than itself. What it will do is throw radioactive material all over the place. It’s less a weapon of war than it is putting a hex on you and your family. Which wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t work so well. Radiation is some modern Jungian archetype: A primal fear that not only can you not see, that you don’t even know if you’ve been attacked.

Compounding the fear is the nut-job factor: you don’t need a defense department to make one. Material from cancer centers, X-rays machines and power plants packed around some TNT will do. According to a 2013 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reckoned that Ukraine has roughly 2,500 organizations that use radioactive material. So, the threat is plausible, if not entirely believable. So, would such a dread weapon work?

Probably not.

For one thing, unless you have the sort of expertise that tends to come out of a defense department, a dirty bomb is more likely to kill the people making and transporting it than any intended target(s). Secondly, the people it does kill when it goes boom is probably going to be from flying debris caused by the conventional part of the bomb.

Back in 1987, Saddam Hussein was trying to develop dirty bomb for use against Iran during the ironically named Worldwind War (the longest land war of the 20th Century). The programmed was scrapped as ineffective. Which is probably why al Qaeda – filled with Sunni refugees from Saddam’s military – told it’s American born affiliate, José Padillo, to drop the idea and focus on a natural gas explosion instead.

The most successful use of a dirty bomb to date was by Chechen rebels in 1995 when they buried some standard dynamite and the isotope cesium-137 in Moscow’s Ismailovsky Park. What made it successful was that they immediately called a local televisions station to tell them what they’d done. The authorities dug it up and defused it while a public panic spread. Illustrating the point that the threat of a weapon is more powerful than the weapon itself.

Understand that radiation does do every awful thing it’s been billed to do. If the radiation is concentrated it is deadlier, but to fewer people. A dirty bomb, though, throws the radiation far and wide. That’s scary, but let’s look at the physics of the thing.

Radiation damage is measured in something called rem. According Richard A. Muller, professor of Physics at the University of California Berkley and author of Physics for Future Presidents, the threshold for radiation sickness is 100 rem. Less than that and your body will likely heal itself without you even feeling it. At 200 rem, you have a decent chance of dying and cancer risks go through the roof. A whole-body dose of 300 rem is what’s called LD50 – a short way of saying Lethal Dose 50% - or a scientific way of saying that without immediate treatment your chances of survival are half and half.

Let’s say you got 1400 curies of cesium-137 in a dirty bomb, likely the same as the Chechen bomb. Stand unprotected in its presence for an hour and you will absorb 450 rem, well above the 300 threshold. Now let’s say that the doomed goon carrying the thing successful plants it and it goes off as planned. With a blast radius of a square mile, the radiation will be about .5 millicurie per square yard. An hour’s exposure in the blast radius is .005 rem. Well below the threshold of 100. Stay in the neighborhood for a month and you are up to 4 rem. You won’t get sick, although it will increase your chances of cancer by .16%. Scary, yes, but remember that the “natural” occurrence of cancer in this country is 20%, bringing your chances up to 20.16%

It’s probably best to assume that the Russian military knows all this already. Which raises the question: what the hell are the Russians up to? A dirty bomb has no battlefield advantage (as Saddam Hussein realized) and as for attacking civilian targets, Russia needs thousands of bodies to pile up now, not in not half a percent hike in cancer 20 years. As a weapon of terror, it is more affective.

Possibly it is simply a pretense for Russia tactical nuclear weapons – although in a wide-open prairie like Ukraine, the value of tactical nuclear weapons is debatable. Why would you cross a Rubicon that will likely turn your few remaining allies against you to destroy, by most estimate, around 13 tanks. Equipment that, once the nuclear line it crossed, will be replaced by 20 tanks? You probably wouldn’t.

What you would get is more panicked chatter about nukes and that “He’s just crazy enough to do it” vibe that maniacs do to get what they want. What Putin wants is Crimea, and the more nervous he makes the West, the closer he is to getting it.