Radiation minus facts equals scare

Published July 7, 2007

Now wait just a darned minute.

The Canadian media is reporting that, to quote CTV, “Radioactive devices — some of which have the potential to be used in terrorist attacks — have gone missing in alarming numbers in Canada over the past five years.”

These are small devices used “in everything from medical research to measuring oil wells.”

Some of the devices could be used in a “dirty bomb,” where conventional explosives are used to detonate nuclear material, spreading the contamination over a wide area, said Alan Bell, a security and international terrorism expert from Globe Risk Security Holdings.

CTV even goes so far as to show a map of where radiation will go if a dirty bomb was detonated at the CN tower in Toronto.


Oh, the humanity! Hide the children! Time to get scared!

But wait just a darned minute. There’s something very important missing from the news stories: How much radioactive material was stolen.

It talks about the “dozens” of devices that have gone missing, but nowhere does it say how much radioactive material we’re talking about. A gram is not a teaspoon is not a pound. Cesium isn’t plutonium.

Sure, a certain amount of radioactive material released at the CN Tower could cause a certain amount of death, but nowhere does it tell us how much potential damage the missing material specifically could cause.

It boils down to a scare article, pure and simple.

When the Cassini probe, with its plutonium power plant, was being launched to Saturn, there was a protest. There was enough plutonium on board to kill millions of people, the activists cried.

True… but not. If each of those millions of people was spoon fed the plutonium, yes, it could kill them. But not if it was released into the atmosphere if Cassini’s rocket exploded. (Not that it would be good, but it wouldn’t kill millions.)

The phrase “…has the potential to…” is what’s dangerous here. Under what circumstances? How would it likely affect people is what’s important.

Consider this: “A five-pound box of nails, available from any hardware store, has the potential to kill hundreds of people.” Sure, if you hammered one into each of their heads individually.

Further, without knowing how much was stolen, we don’t know if there are easier ways to get it. Does it make sense for thieves to steal all this stuff, or would it be easier to get hold of some old smoke alarms?

(Check out the book The Radioactive Boy Scout. “In the summer of 1995, a teenager in a Detroit suburb, a mediocre student with a relentless scientific curiosity, managed to build a rudimentary nuclear breeder reactor in a shed behind his mother’s house, using radioactive elements obtained from items as ordinary as smoke detectors.”) (You can also read the original Harper’s magazine version here.)

Without context, there’s no way to say what the real potential for damage is here. But there’s certainly enough to scare people.

  1. Gnomic says:

    I used to work with state emergency mangement. I’ve taken all the radioactive reaction and survival courses. I’ve been inside an operational nuclear plant. I’ve worked in a lab with radioisotopes. And if you want to build a deadly x-ray machine from an old TV tube, I’ve got the plans.

    Unless someone detonates a real warhead – unlikely by any terrorist – the danger poised by a dirty bomb is mostly PR. Seriously. I’ll stand 100 ft away as long as you give me a paper air mask and hose me down with water right away. Seriosly – its really not that big of a deal.

    In the event somone does nuke a city near you and the blast doesn’t kill you, seal off a room in the center basement (completely!) , fill your bathtub immediately and get as much food as you can keep (and a honey bucket), and stay inside for 2 weeks, and filter the air through bedsheets. You will live. although it will suck after the first few hours. The radiation isn’t the most likely thing to get you (illness is).

    And I can think of 50 easier ways to harm people with much higher lethality – blowing up any chem plant with chlorine is at the top of that list, yet despite the story that 60 minutes did 5 years ago, you could likely walk right up to a chlorine gas tank – or any of a half dozen other common nasties) and open it since there is no law mandating effective required security.

    Thankful, most terrorists are stupid. Sady, so are many “journalists.”

  2. Gnomic says:

    Wanna real scare – a DIY fusion reactor. There are 4 of these in Richmond, VA.


  3. Leland says:

    Hey Gnomic,

    How far are we from Mr. Fusion?

  4. gnomic says:

    The fusor isn’t that hard to build – it just doesn’t generate electricity, it uses it. Experts say fusion is at least 50 years away (up from 20 years away 25 years ago). I suspect that we’ll find a new way of generating power long before Fusion becomes economiclly viable. If string theory is right, we should be able to collapse alternate universes and wither generate energy or violate the rules of physics in a localized area to get power (ala SF writer Robert Heinlein).

    Not quite a Mr Fusion – but I wouldn’t want to live near the first guy who discovers this…

  5. gnomic says:

    More dirty bomb scare: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/19713189/

    The NRC issues a permit to but radioactive. Yeah, guages that use radioactive material Short of eating the guages, there is absolutly no danger.

    I have a gut feeling we should be afraid.

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