[ RadSafe ] NYT Op-Ed: The Smoky Bomb Threat (on Po-210)

Muckerheide, Jim (CDA) Jim.Muckerheide at state.ma.us
Thu Dec 21 23:00:06 CST 2006

Controlling below 1.6 Ci is fine, but Zimmerman's anti-alpha stuff makes me finally understand why the constant massive releases of radon gas over millions of square miles of land surface, with its numerous alpha decay products AND constant accumulation of Po-210 on all surfaces, are so deadly!  And tobacco on top of that is "smoky" in spades!  Imagine the billions of Curies from a volcano.  Sure don't want to breate that!

Good grief.  

I suppose we should know what inventory of which radionuclide(s) would deliver what dose from being burned!?  Should we assume that somebody throws their mouth over the whole fire to meet "nuclear safety analysis standards?"  And what if they swallow some?

Regards, Jim

-----Original Message-----
From: radsafe-bounces at radlab.nl on behalf of John Jacobus
Sent: Thu 12/21/2006 9:16 PM
To: know_nukes at yahoogroups.com; radsafe
Subject: [ RadSafe ] NYT Op-Ed: The Smoky Bomb Threat (on Po-210)
I had heard about the proposal of the reduction in
reporting requirements, i.e., 1.6 Ci level, a few week
December 19, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor
The Smoky Bomb Threat

THE exotic murder-by-polonium of the former K.G.B. spy
Alexander Litvinenko has embroiled Russia, Britain and
Germany in a diplomatic scuffle and a hunt for more
traces of the lethal substance. But it also throws
into question most of the previous analyses of "dirty
bombs," terrorist attacks using radioactive isotopes
wrapped in explosives (or using other dispersion
techniques) to spread radioactive material in crowded 

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 Mr. Litvinenko - as a source of
dirty bombs. We concentrated instead on isotopes that
emit penetrating gamma rays, which are basically
super-powered packets of light, hard to shield and
effective at a yard or more. 

The alpha radiation from polonium can be easily
shielded â?" by a layer of aluminum foil, a sheet or
two of paper, or the dead outer layer of skin. And so,
the reasoning went, alpha radiation could not hurt you
as long as the source stayed outside your body.
Exactly. Mr. Litvinenko was apparently killed by
polonium that he ate or drank or inhaled. That source
was so physically small that it was hard to see,
perhaps the size of a couple of grains of salt and
weighing just a few millionths of a gram.

Dirty bombs based on gamma emitters, analysts have
learned, can't kill very many people. Mr. Litvinenko's
death tells us that "smoky bombs" based on alpha
emitters very well could.

Polonium 210 is surprisingly common. It is used by
industry in devices that eliminate static electricity,
in low-powered brushes used to ionize the air next to
photographic film so dust can be swept off easily, 
and in quite large machines placed end-to-end across a
web of fabric moving over rollers in a textile mill.
It is even used to control dust in clean rooms where
computer chips and hard drives are made. 

It may be difficult to get people to eat polonium; it
isn't hard to force them to breathe it. The problem
for a radiological terrorist is to get his "hot"
material inside people's bodies where it will do 
the most harm. If the terrorist can solve that
problem, then alpha radiation is the most devastating
choice he can make. Precisely because alpha particles
stop in such a short distance, they deposit all of
their energy in a relatively small number of cells,
killing them or causing them to mutate, increasing the
long-term risk of cancer. 

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.

It would be unwise for me to dwell on the details of
just how one goes about getting a hot enough fire or
breaking polonium into extremely fine "dust." In the
end, however, the radioactive material will appear 
like the dust from an explosion, or the smoke from a
fire. My point is to demonstrate the urgent need for
new thinking in the regulatory arena, not to give away
important information. 

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. It would set off a radiological emergency
of a kind not seen before in the United States, and
the number of people requiring life support or
palliative care until death would overwhelm the number
of beds now available for treating victims of
radiation. First responders dashing unprotected into 
the cloud from a smoky bomb might be among the worst
wounded. Fire and police departments around the
country will need alpha radiation detectors, since the
counters they carry now cannot see alphas.

Some of the steps involved with making a good smoky
bomb from polonium would be dangerous for the
terrorists involved, and might cost them their lives.
That, unfortunately, no longer seems like a very high 

What can we do to stop them? We must make it far less
easy for them to acquiring polonium in deadly amounts.
Polonium sources with about 10 percent of a lethal
dose are readily available - even in a product sold 
on Amazon.com. Only modest restraints inhibit purchase
of significantly larger amounts of polonium: as of
next year, anyone purchasing more than 16 curies of
polonium 210 - enough to make up 5,000 lethal doses -
must register it with a tracking system run by the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But this is vastly too
high â?" almost no purchases on that scale are made by
any industry. 

The commission (and the International Atomic Energy
Agency as well) is said to be considering tighter
regulations to make a repeat of the Litvinenko affair
less probable. There is talk that it might tighten the

polonium reporting requirement by a factor of 10, to
1.6 curies. That's better, but still not strict

The biggest problem is that the regulatory
commission's regulations do not restrict the quantity
of polonium used in industry. This may make it quite
easy for terrorists to purchase large amounts of one
of the earth's deadliest substances. A near-term goal
should to require specific licensing of any person or
company seeking to purchase alpha sources stronger
than one millicurie, about a third of a lethal dose. A

longer-term goal ought to be eliminating nearly all
use of polonium in industry through other

That is a technical challenge and would cost some
money, but it would certainly be less expensive than
coping with the devastation of a smoky bomb.

Peter D. Zimmerman, a nuclear physicist, is a
professor of science and security in the Department of
War Studies at King's College London. He was chief
scientist of the United States Senate Foreign
Relations Committee from 2001 to 2003.

On Nov. 26, 1942, President Roosevelt ordered nationwide gasoline 
rationing, beginning December 1.   

-- John
John Jacobus, MS
Certified Health Physicist
e-mail:  crispy_bird at yahoo.com

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