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As we all know, terrorism is a major news item these days and also a very prominent issue in many people's minds. It usually has to do with something exploding, whether that be a plane crashing (9/11) or an actual bomb. However, what if terrorists used radioactive materials to frighten people instead?

I understand that the point of terrorism is to invoke fear, however if in my world where such technology to detect radioactive materials was not available (but detecting traditional bombs was still possible), would a radioactive stick of uranium not do the job?

It still invokes large amounts of fear into people and it does cause damage, which in some cases may be longer lasting (as radiation can cause mutations, or is the time period too short? perhaps a hostage situation can solve this?)

Thank you for your time.

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    $\begingroup$ It actually has been done. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dirty_bomb Are conventional bombs filled with radioactive material. Unless you are talking about nukes. $\endgroup$ – Skye Oct 1 '16 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ Without the basic technology to detect radioactive materials (which is not advanced, complicated or expensive) it seems unlikely that there would be much understanding of them, or that they would be available in quantity. So they wouldn't cause fear either. $\endgroup$ – John Dallman Oct 1 '16 at 14:04
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The main reason why terrorists prefer conventional explosives over dirty bombs is that conventional explosives are far easier to acquire than radioactive materials. Radioactive materials are extremely tightly controlled. But on the other hand, there are explosives which can be made without special equipment from completely unregulated over-the-counter substances.

The most radioactive isotopes are the waste-products of nuclear reactors. Those Uranium isotopes you find in natural minerals are only very lightly radioactive (high radioactivity = low half-life time = can not exist in the ground for billions of years). In a world where radioactive detection equipment doesn't exist we can assume that the world doesn't have much nuclear technology at all. After all it is quite hard to do research with radioactive materials when you lack the basic equipment to measure their radioactivity. That would make it even harder to acquire highly-radioactive material.

Also, conventional explosives are much safer to work with. If you want to build a bomb which contains radioactive material, you need to handle said material. That requires rare and expensive protection equipment which is hard to acquire covertly. When the bomb maker is a suicide bomber that might not matter for them. But skilled bomb makers are a precious asset for a terrorist organization. They are far too valuable to sacrifice their life for a single strike. The terrorist organization will prefer to keep their bomb makers alive and healthy, so they can build more bombs for them. The glorious sacrifices can be left to more expendable members.

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What is your terrorist DOING with his radioactive stick of uranium? If he's making it into a nuke, I'm afraid.

However, if he's just hidden a lump of uranium somewhere in my city, I'm no more scared of it than I am of the radioactive sources in various hospital equipment or of the tiger in the city zoo. I'm a lot less scared of it than I am of being mugged.

The chances of him having hidden it in my house or my workplace are fairly small, unless he's making announcements that he hates everyone on Acacia Avenue, or detests people who work at Bloggs & Co.

Also if the radiation is strong enough to do me serious damage if I merely get near it (like he's hidden it in the bus that passes my house once an hour), the terrorist is likely to be in a pretty bad way from having been in prolonged contact with it.

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There's another problem: Dirty bombs are far more dangerous to their makers than to those exposed to them. There are two basic threat modes: environmental and ingested. The environmental threat is basically nil:

To have a 50% chance of killing someone with your bomb you need to expose them to 5 sieverts of radiation. Neither alpha nor beta radiation pose any real threat outside the body, so this must be in the form of gamma radiation. Note that gamma radiation is hard to shield against, bombmakers in a garage aren't going to be able to protect themselves. Lets suppose they're suicide bombers, they don't care about 5 sieverts. However, 10x this dose will promptly incapacitate them. (Probably less, we don't have good data. Very few people have been exposed to such doses and figuring out how much they were exposed to is difficult.) Lets build a bomb that can contaminate a football field to 5 sieverts/hr. (This will only kill those that hang around after the boom!) We put it in a van.

Our target is 360' x 160' = 57,600 ft^2. The first hit off Google for the size of a cargo van gives us about 45 ft^2 in back. Thus the radiation coming off the as it sits there is more than 1000x the radiation at the target. Lets say 1000x. It's going to be radiating at 83 sieverts/minute. How does your terrorist do anything but keel over?

Realistically, all that external exposure can do is contaminate an area and force a cleanup.

If you actually want harm you need to go with the isotopes that the body grabs.

One of the scary ones from nuclear incidents is iodine-131. The body sticks it in the thyroid, the concentration isn't a good thing. However, it has a half life of 8 days. Where are your dirty bombers going to get it??? The only supplies are a small amount the nuclear medicine guys use--and you can't stockpile it. Forget this one.

The other two are caesium-137 and strontium-90. These are the only two things they'll be able to use--and in both cases the effect is an increased cancer risk, not immediate death. What's the point of a terrorist attack where nobody dies?

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  • $\begingroup$ How about polonium-210? $\endgroup$ – Philipp Oct 16 '16 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Philipp Po-210 is an alpha emitter. Note what I said about the threat alpha emitters (don't) pose. Deadly if injected, harmless outside the body. There's also the 138 day half life--there simply isn't a lot of it available anywhere. $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel Oct 17 '16 at 3:26
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Even with the ability to detect radiation a possible dirty bomb attack by terrorists is still something that's extremely dangerous and would pose a massive threat. It's a good thing that radioactive materials are hard to get. It would only pose a realistic threat if terrorists would be able to get their hands on the radioactive material or would be able to produce it.

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