The smoky bomb

posted at 11:44 am on December 19, 2006 by Allahpundit

Grade-A scare piece by nuclear physicist Peter Zimmerman in today’s International Herald Tribune:

Essentially all analysts, myself included, played down the possibility of using alpha radiation — fast- moving helium nuclei ejected during the radioactive decay of certain isotopes, such as of polonium 210, the substance that killed [Alexander] Litvinenko — as a source of dirty bombs…

Dirty bombs based on gamma emitters, analysts have learned, can’t kill very many people. Litvinenko’s death tells us that “smoky bombs” based on alpha emitters very well could…

The terrorist’s solution lies in getting very finely divided polonium into the air where people can breathe it. Without giving away any information damaging to national security, I see several fairly simple ways to accomplish this: burn the material, blow it up, dissolve it in a lot of water or pulverize it to a size so small that the particles can float in the air and lodge in the lungs. In the end, the radioactive material will appear like the dust from an explosion, or the smoke from a fire.

Air containing such radioactive debris would appear smoky or dusty, and be dangerous to breathe. A few breaths might easily be enough to sicken a victim, and in some cases to kill. A smoky bomb exploded in a packed arena or on a crowded street could kill dozens or hundreds.

Help me out here. By Zimmerman’s own estimation, the dose that killed Litvinenko was “perhaps the size of a couple of grains of salt.” What he doesn’t mention is that the street value of those grains was a cool $10 mil. Doctors believe that he would have been killed with even 1/10th the dosage, which means we’re talking about $1 million per lethal dose. Do the world’s jihadis have nothing better to do with the Saudis’ money than drop half a billion dollars on a “smoky bomb” that would kill 500 people?

What am I missing?

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Again,you are looking at that figure from essentially a retail perspective.
I do not think they would hesitste to use illegally obtained materials that suit their purposes,versus slling said material in the blak market and uing the money in some other manner.

bbz123 on December 19, 2006 at 12:01 PM

I don’t think you’re necessarily missing anything there. One question, though… how much does the material cost for a more classic dirty bomb, which would similarly kill dozens to thousands, location being key, and instill similar panic in everyone else? Maybe its street value per lethal dose is a bit less, but I find it hard to believe that either could be obtained as a legitimate bargain.

I’m with you. I wouldn’t put it past the terrorists to find a way to steal it, but buy it legitimately? Nah.

flutejpl on December 19, 2006 at 12:04 PM

Uranium is $55/lb.

It’s not important to mass hysteria how radioactive it is, as long as the message gets out that you can’t breathe.

pedestrian on December 19, 2006 at 12:08 PM

The physics is correct. You don’t need “a lot” of Polonium-210 to kill someone.

But you are correct. There’s not a pracitcal usage of the bomb. Even as an assassin’s weapon, it’s terribly because the target, when dosed, lingers for days. It’s also expensive and short-range.

It’s much more effective to release a sarin-like bomb in a closed area than a “dirty” bomb, although the psychological effect of a “dirty bomb” is far greater than that of any other explosive.

You’ll even have people calling in a “nuclear bomb” because it’s made from radioactive waste.

It’d be more dangerous as an areosol. Put it in a Binanca container and squirt people. They won’t think twice about it, just dismiss you as clumsy until they start exhibiting symptoms hours later.

I talked about Polonium-210 at my blog in detail. I hold a Ph.D. in chemistry, so I do know something about it. If I really wanted I could ask a colleague to guest-blog, as he loves nuclear and heavy-metal chemistry, but given his amount of concern over the subject (minimal), I don’t think it’s really worth his time.

Nethicus on December 19, 2006 at 12:15 PM

Uranium and other cheapies would be the way to go. Polonium probably costs as much as it does for a very good reason: there’s just not that much available. I don’t doubt that it would take an unrealistic amount of effort to amass 1 to 5 pounds of Polonium in the hands of an operative. Possible in the U.S., Russia, France, and other countries with multiple nuke plants but not (yet) in Iran.

The short half-life of the material is also a problem from a production, stockpiling, planning, and shipping/smuggling perspective.

JoeEgo on December 19, 2006 at 12:18 PM

I think what you are missing is simply that the number quoted (from Fox News) isn’t even close to correct. I think it is many orders of magnitude less expensive than $1M per dose.


Henry Bowman on December 19, 2006 at 12:56 PM

…played down the possibility of using alpha radiation…

I work using this stuff, and the new regs (NRC et al) that have come out since 9/11 are seriously taking this issue into account. This guy is either late to the game or just trying to get his name published riding on the popularity/infamy of Po210.

blogRot on December 19, 2006 at 12:56 PM

Although I have thought AP was mistaken in the past in overinflating the cost to Putin for getting the polonium together since Putin obviously wasnt paying retail for the stuff, and if anything given the finite market and Russian control of that market, the polonium could have been “surplus” that didn’t cost really anything…

…in THIS case AP’s analysis is right on. Even if he is off by an order of magnitude as far as cost, polonium will never be a weapon of mass destruction. It is simply not available in quantities sufficient to kill many people. While Putin might get the stuff essentially for free, he would only have limited quantities. Terrorists, on the other hand, simply can’t get the stuff on their own, period. Terrorists don’t have the nuclear reactors and sophisticated technology and expertise required, and if they came anywhere close to such capabilities, for example if Iran was doling out nuclear material to terrorists, then polonium would be the least of our worries.

The threat posed by a dirty bomb has never been, and will never be, the bodycount. A dirty bomb only works effectively because of humanities irrationally exaggerated fear of radiation. A successful dirty bomb would be designed to spread as much very hard to clean up radiation as possible over the most valuable, densely packed real estate possible: places like the core of high rises in a major urban city. A dirty bomb in these areas would cause mass panic, and totally shut down the area for weeks or months. Even if the radiation was almost completely cleaned up, property values would crash and people wouldn’t want to work there. So a dirty bomb is a very effective economic weapon in that it is very cheap and potentially low tech to produce, and it has a very big impact on peoples lives even though it isn’t going to actually kill them.

kaltes on December 19, 2006 at 12:58 PM

Why Putin might very well get the stuff for ‘free’:

(1) Let’s say you can produce 50 widgets per year.

(2) Let’s say the market for widgets, which you have cornered by underselling everyone else, is only 30 widgets per year at the price you have set, and you have set the optimum price.

(3) The 20 ‘surplus’ widgets are somewhat worthless, since you cant sell them without depressing prices below optimum, and you can’t simply store them because widgets go bad within a year or so. You also can’t really cut production because the 50 widgets are a by-product of processing a certain quantity of material, and you were going to process that material anyway. So what do you do?

You look for something else to do with those 20 widgets.

kaltes on December 19, 2006 at 1:07 PM

The threat posed by a dirty bomb has never been, and will never be, the bodycount

Your explanation is far more succinct than the screed I was going to post.

blogRot on December 19, 2006 at 1:14 PM

The fact tht nuclear tech is so expensive is a small comfort. Bush not paying attention to nuclear proliferation, which will eventually lead to cheaper nuclear fuels, is a greater discomfort.

Bushs nuturing of India’s nuclear program is but another example of the power of Lobbyists in America. But that is another topic.

Theworldisnotenough on December 19, 2006 at 1:15 PM

I cannot for the life of me imagine why this guy initially ignored alpha emitters as a dirty bomb source. Sure, if someone fires some He nuclei at you with a gun, you can stop them with a piece of paper. But lodge a small, dust-sized particle in your lungs and you’re asking for damage and cancer.

Externally, alpha emitters are a nuisance. Internally, they are a serious problem. We take great pains at the reactor sites to prevent inhalation or ingestion of radioactive material.

Physics Geek on December 19, 2006 at 1:25 PM

A dirty bomb only works effectively because of humanities irrationally exaggerated fear of radiation

I totally agree, but I read somewhere that the restaraunts/hotels where the Po-210 murder(s) occured has increased its traffic because they are popular now. Maybe that tide of irrationally has turned somewhat? If we don’t fear it, the terrorists can’t use that against us.

blogRot on December 19, 2006 at 1:42 PM

t’s not important to mass hysteria how radioactive it is, as long as the message gets out that you can’t breathe.

pedestrian on December 19, 2006 at 12:08 PM

Precisely. Terrorism depends on striking “terror”. Remeber when we were all looking to the skies for days, weeks, months every time we heard a low flying plane? Well if the AIR can kill you….

labwrs on December 19, 2006 at 1:52 PM

ten dollars for a machetti that can kill hundreds
or millions for a bomb that can kill … about the same number of people



One Angry Christian on December 19, 2006 at 2:01 PM

Maybe that tide of irrationally has turned somewhat?

blogRot on December 19, 2006 at 1:42 PM Doubtful. Sounds more like the urge to rubberneck trumped the fear of radiation. An irrational urge won over an irrational fear.

spmat on December 19, 2006 at 2:06 PM

An irrational urge won over an irrational fear.

Exactly! I’ll take Elites sipping tea whispering scandalous tales at the Po210 Bar than mass hysteria in the streets. The more the populous is exposed (no pun intended), the less they fear it, the less the effects of the primary purpose of a dirty bomb.

blogRot on December 19, 2006 at 2:41 PM

You are assuming these weasels go to a “dirty bombs r us” store and purchases them. Some of this radioactive juice is leftover garbage from experiments, or has served its purpose, or is stolen. A grain here, a grain there and you have enough to do damage without and extreme amount. Pay some smuck researcher 100 grand for a little something, and it appears. What it costs to produce, and its street value are not connected.

right2bright on December 19, 2006 at 4:27 PM

This is just a scare. Does any one know how hard it is to actually produce plutonium? Let alone obtain and dispense it! And the same goes for uranium as well. It’s not like these materials are common and can be found laying around for anyone to pick up and use.

As for the lethality of ether material, I was stationed in Germany when the Chernobyl reactor exploded and literally TONS of radio active material was ejected into the atmosphere, yet the body count was actually quite low and is contributed to direct exposure to the radiation at the site and not to inhalation of radio active particles in or around the area. I am quite sure I inhaled radioactive particles in Germany, as that cloud spread over most of Europe, and I have yet to feel any effects from that exposure. It takes quite a bit of material to seriously contaminate you and make you ill, let alone kill you.

I’m not worried about any ‘dirty bombs.’ There’s far easier and more effective ways to kill mass numbers of people. Hell, with a couple of dozens of gallons of tomato sauce and a few days time, I could cook up enough botulism toxin to sicken hundreds of people. All I would need to do is put the toxins in a aerosol sprayer and drive around town. It’s really not that hard.

RedinBlueCounty on December 19, 2006 at 4:47 PM

“What am I missing?”


Christoph on December 19, 2006 at 5:38 PM

Even as an assassin’s weapon, it’s terribly because the target, when dosed, lingers for days.

Actually, that makes it great as an assassination weapon: By the time the victim shows any symptoms he is beyond realistic hope of recovery, and the assassin is long out of the country. However, there are much cheaper substances that can have the same effect; eg Thallium.

jic on December 19, 2006 at 8:27 PM

Our government did a study in the ’50s and determined that ingesting 1 microgram of plutonium will give you lung cancer, 100% of the time. That’s pretty much a death sentence, or at least an extreme horror story.

You don’t have to use expensive polonium, you can use cheap plutonium in the same way Zimmerman describes above.

Kevin M on December 19, 2006 at 10:12 PM

Gee I get frustrated sometimes. Click on the trigger link here (also above… it is the same link) for why.

The problem is that Po-210 is useful as a trigger for a nuclear explosion.

I.e., nightmare scenario. Whether they can do it or not is one thing, but we sure as hell know they want to. It’s MI5’s gloomy assessment that our enemy has London in their sites.

Christoph on December 20, 2006 at 1:14 AM