The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Office of Public Affairs
A "dirty bomb" is one type of a "radiological dispersal device" (RDD) that combines a conventional explosive, such as dynamite, with radioactive material. The terms dirty bomb and RDD are often used interchangeably in the media. Most RDDs would not release enough radiation to kill people or cause severe illness - the conventional explosive itself would be more harmful to individuals than the radioactive material. However, depending on the scenario, an RDD explosion could create fear and panic, contaminate property, and require potentially costly cleanup. Making prompt, accurate information available to the public could prevent the panic sought by terrorists.
A dirty bomb is in no way similar to a nuclear weapon or nuclear bomb. A nuclear bomb creates an explosion that is millions of times more powerful than that of a dirty bomb. The cloud of radiation from a nuclear bomb could spread tens to hundreds of square miles, whereas a dirty bomb's radiation could be dispersed within a few blocks or miles of the explosion. A dirty bomb is not a "Weapon of Mass Destruction" but a "Weapon of Mass Disruption," where contamination and anxiety are the terrorists' major objectives.
Impact of a Dirty Bomb
The extent of local contamination would depend on a number of factors, including the size of the explosive, the amount and type of radioactive material used, the means of dispersal, and weather conditions. Those closest to the RDD would be the most likely to sustain injuries due to the explosion. As radioactive material spreads, it becomes less concentrated and less harmful. Prompt detection of the type of radioactive material used will greatly assist local authorities in advising the community on protective measures, such as sheltering in place, or quickly leaving the immediate area. Radiation can be readily detected with equipment already carried by many emergency responders. Subsequent decontamination of the affected area may involve considerable time and expense.
Immediate health effects from exposure to the low radiation levels expected from an RDD would likely be minimal. The effects of radiation exposure would be determined by:
- The amount of radiation absorbed by the body.
- The type of radiation (gamma, beta, or alpha).
- The distance from the radiation to an individual.
- The means of exposure-external or internal (absorbed by the skin, inhaled, or ingested).
- The length of time exposed.
The health effects of radiation tend to be directly proportional to radiation dose. In other words, the higher the radiation dose, the higher risk of injury.
In general, protection from radiation is afforded by:
- Minimizing the time exposed to radioactive materials.
- Maximizing the distance from the source of radiation
- Shielding from external exposure and inhaling radioactive material.
More detailed guidance is provided in the questions and answers at the end of this Backgrounder.
Sources of Radioactive Material
Radioactive materials are routinely used at hospitals, research facilities, industrial facilities and construction sites. These radioactive materials are used for such purposes as diagnosing and treating illnesses, sterilizing equipment, and inspecting welding seams. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission together with 35 "Agreement" States administer over 21,000 licenses of such materials. The vast majority of these materials are not useful as an RDD.
Control of Radioactive Material
NRC and State regulations require owners licensed to use or store radioactive material to secure it from theft and unauthorized access. These measures have been greatly strengthened since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Licensees must promptly report lost or stolen high-risk radioactive material. Local authorities also assist in making a determined effort to find and retrieve such sources. Most reports of lost or stolen material involve small or short-lived radioactive sources not useful for an RDD.
Past experience suggests there has not been a pattern of collecting such sources for the purpose of assembling an RDD. It is important to note that the radioactivity of the combined total of all un-recovered sources over the past 5 years (when corrected for radioactive decay) would not reach the threshold for one high-risk radioactive source. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said world-wide. The U.S. Government is working to strengthen controls on high-risk radioactive sources both at home and abroad.
Risk of Cancer
Just because a person is near a radioactive source for a short time or gets a small amount of radioactive dust on himself or herself does not mean he or she will get cancer. Any additional risk will likely be extremely small. Doctors specializing in radiation health effects will be able to assess the risks and suggest mitigating medical treatment, once the radioactive source and exposure levels have been determined.
There are some medical treatments available that help cleanse the body of certain radioactive materials. Prussian blue has been proven effective for ingestion of cesium-137 (a radioactive isotope). In addition, potassium iodide (KI) can be used to protect against thyroid cancer caused by iodine-131 (radioactive iodine). However, KI, which is available as a "over the counter" pill, offers no protection to other parts of the body or against other radioactive isotopes. Medical professionals are best qualified to determine how to best treat symptoms.
Other Contact Information
A number of Federal agencies have responsibilities for dealing with RDDs. Their public affairs offices can answer questions on the subject or provide access to experts in and out of government. Their web sites and phone numbers are:
Department of Homeland Security: www.dhs.gov - 202-282-8010.
Department of Energy: www.energy.gov - 202-586-4940.
Environmental Protection Agency: www.epa.gov - 202-564-9828.
Nuclear Regulatory Commission: https://www.nrc.gov/ - 301-415-8200.
Federal Emergency Management Agency: www.fema.gov - 202-646-4600.
Department of Justice: www.usdoj.gov/ - 202-514-2007.
Federal Bureau of Investigation: www.fbi.gov - 202-324-3691.
Department of Health and Human Services: www.hhs.gov - 202-690-6343.
Transportation Security Administration: www.tsa.gov/public - 571-227-2829.
National Nuclear Security Administration: www.nnsa.doe.gov - 202-586-7371.
This information is provided by the Radiation Control Program within the Department of Public Health.