Join 3,556 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Hype is deadlier than radiation
March 20, 2005 11:20 AM   Subscribe

The dirty bomb hoax. One of the biggest threats from terrorism was the supposed dirty bomb plot by Jose Padilla which eventually turned up nothing. Even if there was a plot, the threat of a dirty bomb has been over-exaggerated. The U.S. military had already tested the possibilities of a dirty bomb and discovered that "any immediate deaths or serious injuries would likely result from the explosion itself, rather than from radiation exposure." The radiation could be cleaned up with a geiger counter and a vacuum cleaner. But don't forget to buy your nuke pills! (via the Power of Nightmares)
posted by destro (39 comments total)

 
The radiation could be cleaned up with a geiger counter and a vacuum cleaner.

Really? No one seems able to agree.
posted by AlexReynolds at 11:48 AM on March 20, 2005


No one seems able to agree.

The article you link to asserts mostly that there would be administrative problems with regard to which laws should apply, and how the cleanup should progress. In fact, the geiger-counter and vaccum-cleaner method would work just fine. It says very little about the radiation itself being a problem, and a lot more about our unpredictable response to it causing the "economic, social and health problems."
posted by odinsdream at 12:36 PM on March 20, 2005


From the Nature letter: For example, facilities controlled by the energy department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission all have different 'safe' levels. These discrepancies could lead to arguments over the criteria applicable to areas contaminated by a dirty bomb, Elcock says, which could delay clean-up efforts and undermine public confidence.

Odinsdream, while you think a vacuum cleaner might work, and while I may or may not agree, the people who would be doing the actual cleanup work clearly do not have a scientific consensus about what is safe, or at least have a consensus that jibes with the "vacuum cleaner" approach the poster suggests is adequate.
posted by AlexReynolds at 12:48 PM on March 20, 2005


AlexReynolds : "the people who would be doing the actual cleanup work clearly do not have a scientific consensus about what is safe, or at least have a consensus that jibes with the 'vacuum cleaner' approach the poster suggests is adequate."

I'm not being argumentative, and I believe that that's very possible, but do you have any links to something saying that?
posted by Bugbread at 12:52 PM on March 20, 2005


Bugbread, here's one overview of the problems surrounding this issue.

Let's put it another way: After 9/11, a vacuum cleaner could have been used to clean up all the asbestos, concrete and other airborne contaminants that people now breath in lower Manhattan.

But is that a reasonable approach to cleaning the air as a response to that attack? What levels of these substances are considered acceptable?

Yes, a theoretical vacuum could suck it all up. Since this vacuum cleaner is not being used to clean up Manhattan, I doubt it would be used in a radiological attack. More likely in that case, the gov't would cordon off the most dangerous areas and wait it out a half-life or two, cleaning up the rest.

A government agency would likely never suggest such a scheme that cleans up everything, balancing increased demand on the health system and such against the cost of using a vacuum cleaner everywhere.

Which is to say that the NRC, DOE, and EPA do not have a consensus on public safety with respect to initial and long-term radiological contamination, and a complete "vacuum cleaner" response would not in general (to any government agency) make rational sense to agencies based on their definition of "safe" levels of radiation.
posted by AlexReynolds at 1:06 PM on March 20, 2005


Since this vacuum cleaner is not being used to clean up Manhattan, I doubt it would be used in a radiological attack.

Yeah, that makes sense -- because a "vacuum cleaner" wasn't used to clean up 1.3 million tonnes of steel and concrete in a pit roughly 1 million square feet and 60 feet deep, it can't be used to clean up a small area?

Have you ever been to ground zero?
posted by clevershark at 1:12 PM on March 20, 2005


What levels of these substances are considered acceptable?

Yes, the EPA has to figure that out - but overhyping the issue is more deadly
posted by destro at 1:17 PM on March 20, 2005


Yeah, that makes sense -- because a "vacuum cleaner" wasn't used to clean up 1.3 million tonnes of steel and concrete in a pit roughly 1 million square feet and 60 feet deep, it can't be used to clean up a small area?

I think the point is, if the federal government was not able to get such a "vacuum cleaner" to Ground Zero why do you think they will be able to have one available when there is a dirty bomb attack?
posted by mlis at 1:25 PM on March 20, 2005


Yeah, that makes sense -- because a "vacuum cleaner" wasn't used to clean up 1.3 million tonnes of steel and concrete in a pit roughly 1 million square feet and 60 feet deep, it can't be used to clean up a small area?

What's a small area?

I'll tell you a quick story about my department. We had a young researcher who came in, wanted to set up a lab to do C-14 tracing and weighing in various species of fungus.

Unfortunately for us, the researcher before her had staff who spilled labeled carbon throughout the lab, contaminating all the surfaces. When she moved in, the contamination prevented her from sending samples off for measurement at Livermore, at a cost of $30K per run on her university-paid startup grant.

The room was about the size of a high school classroom, and it cost the school $200K to do decontamination of that space, along with the costs for periodic wipe tests.

Whenever I worked in that area, I had to go through a procedure to make sure I didn't bring in C-14 from other areas of the department into this room.

Needless to say, she moved on to a position at Stanford. But my point is that cleaning up radiation is not as easy as running a "vacuum cleaner" over everything: what is "clean"? What costs are acceptable to get to that level of "clean"? Who decides that?

No one in the government agrees on what constitutes safety from a health standpoint, much less has a plan for reaching that goal if there was an attack.

I agree that radiation dangers can be overhyped, as in anything in the media these days. But from experience, and from reading, I don't think the "vacuum cleaner" approach does the poster's argument much good.

I think a little more hype than less is good in the sense that people who are aware that there can be an attack can be prepared with the knowledge to help minimize their risk or damage to health.

Rhetorically, I don't think "overhype" can kill anyone, let alone be "more deadly".
posted by AlexReynolds at 1:32 PM on March 20, 2005


MLIS, while I agree that using a vacuum cleaner probably won't be the course of action taken (or, indeed, the best course of action), I don't understand your choosing to compare Ground Zero and a dirty bomb site, given that the statement you're replying to is specifically pointing out that conditions are different.

If I posit that I can use superglue to fix a broken lamp, and someone else says "you can't use superglue to fix a broken car engine", it would be silly to say, "if you can't even get a tube of superglue for your broken car engine, what makes you think you'll have one available when there your lamp breaks."

Or, more directly phrased: "if the federal government was not able to get such a "vacuum cleaner" to Ground Zero" Do you have any evidence that they tried to get a vacuum cleaner but were unable to?

I think your conclusion may be correct, but your reasoning suspect, like a person who says "Hitler was a bad person, because he had a combover."
posted by Bugbread at 1:37 PM on March 20, 2005


Yes, it would be hard to clean up, maybe I shouldn't have included the vacuum cleaner remark, but I stand by the rest of the post - dirty bombs are not a large threat.

Compared to an regular bomb - maybe one with ball bearings instead of radiation - the danger is minimal compared to something like 200 deaths in Madrid.

The risk involved with a terrorist having to handle radioactive material compared with the result makes it completely illogical.

If you don't think overhype and exaggeration can't be deadly, try shouting "Fire" in a crowded theater. I think you underestimate how people can panic.
posted by destro at 1:51 PM on March 20, 2005


well, considering the trustworthiness of the government I would not feel safe going into an area that had a dirty bomb go off the previous month/year even if the government said it was AOK.
posted by Iax at 2:07 PM on March 20, 2005


Alex , as I understand it, your story seems to suggest that the expensive clean-up was due to isotopic contamination of experimental materials (C14 ratios needing to be measured very accurately) rather than any radiation danger...am I correct? Your example isn't so much about cleaning up "radation" as cleaning up a chemical that will distort scientific results. Kind of like trying to measure atmospheric CO2 next to a coal power plant.
posted by Jimbob at 3:19 PM on March 20, 2005


More likely in that case, the gov't would cordon off the most dangerous areas and wait it out a half-life or two, cleaning up the rest.

Umm...
or, if you prefer...
then, you can always take it from the horse's mouth... (page 77 is referenced by many...)

so your prediction is most likely, why, exactly?
hope springs eternal, I suppose.
and Jimbob expressed exactly the same understanding of Alex' post as I had. Contaminated, but not necessarily harmful.
posted by Busithoth at 3:32 PM on March 20, 2005


Your example isn't so much about cleaning up "radation" as cleaning up a chemical that will distort scientific results.

Contamination is contamination. Read for context: "Safe" in my case is how much C14 is acceptable before it affects measurements. "Safe" in the dirty bomb case is how many millirem per hour or Sieverts, etc. are acceptable before radiation sickness. The clean-up costs of contamination are still demonstrably exhorbitant, the process is nowhere near as simplistic as using a "vacuum cleaner", and your local government will only be so interested in your well-being before they (you and your fellow taxpayers) have to pay the bills.

I would even go so far as to say that because cleaning up a research lab is a controlled process, comparing with cleaning up a metropolitan area, the rough cost I mentioned is even more of a conservative indicator.

Whether "safe" or harmful, the economic cost of clean-up will deter the government from its obligations. As 9/11 showed, the EPA will be focusing the clean-up work on its data.
posted by AlexReynolds at 4:44 PM on March 20, 2005


Contamination is contamination.

Oh for fuck's sake. There's a world of difference between an amount that can interfere with a scientific experiment and an amount of contamination left over after a cleanup that could endanger human lives.

You do know this.
posted by Space Coyote at 5:00 PM on March 20, 2005


When they were in the middle of the "cleanup" pf Rocky Flat's in Colorado, they trucked tons and tons of radioactive "dirt" down I-25 right through my city (Colorado Springs).

There is this tricky curve right in the middle of town, and naturally, one of the trucks overturned, spilling radioactive "dirt" everywhere.

It was, of course, "cleaned up" with a vaccum cleaner (truck mounted) and probably a geiger counter. When they got most of the big chunks up, they sprayed the whole area down with water to wash it into the creek that runs through town.

No real consideration as to half lives, or general safety..

They just wanted it cleaned up, and forgotten about.

I hope you people downstream don't use water from Colorado for your drinking water...
posted by Balisong at 5:49 PM on March 20, 2005


Rhetorically, I don't think "overhype" can kill anyone, let alone be "more deadly".

Actually, it can be. That overhype has been used as an excuse to attack civil liberties, start an unjust war in Iraq, rasie defense spending to astronomical levels, and on and on.
posted by berek at 6:33 PM on March 20, 2005


I have a pretty good vacuum the government can borrow.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:00 PM on March 20, 2005


There were rumours of WMDs. They were overhyped. There are many dead people as a result. Q.E.D.
posted by Bugbread at 7:41 PM on March 20, 2005


That overhype has been used as an excuse to attack civil liberties, start an unjust war in Iraq, rasie defense spending to astronomical levels, and on and on.

Hype doesn't kill people. People believing in the hype kill people.

Alright, I'll stop now.
posted by AlexReynolds at 9:00 PM on March 20, 2005


Hype doesn't kill people. Dishonest politicians looking to line their buddies' pockets and establish the family monarchy kill people.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:08 PM on March 20, 2005


PBS ran a dirty bomb movie produced by the BBC and HBO and funded by the CFR about a month ago. They had a panel discussion with experts and an audience after the show. Seemed like a big deal being made about a non-issue. Probably something they decided to spend money on three years ago. Nevah forget!!!
posted by airguitar at 10:09 PM on March 20, 2005


A dirty bomb is not any more of a threat than a regular bomb — if we lived in a sane world. Alas, we do not. Nuclear magnetic resonance imaging used at your local hospital was renamed magnetic resonance imaging, because ignorant fools shit themselves when they hear the word nuclear.

That's the actual threat of a dirty bomb. While there would be logistical issues in cleaning it up, the actual weapon would be the abject terror it struck in the hearts of a populace that quakes in its boots at the sound of the word nuclear or radiation.

One of the primary vectors of spreading the nuclear hysteria would be the media, much as they are in the flu vaccine shortage.

But hey, at least we stripped Padilla of his constitutional rights for, what was it, two years? On a plot that may not have even existed. For behavior that is not even obviously criminal, let alone behavior that resulted in a criminal conviction. Damn, I feel safer already.
posted by teece at 10:58 PM on March 20, 2005


five fresh fish: I highly recommend the Dyson "Animal". Plus, its purple and looks like it came out of a Transformers cartoon.
posted by mrbill at 11:15 PM on March 20, 2005


AlexReynolds : " Hype doesn't kill people. People believing in the hype kill people. "

People believing in the hype doesn't kill people, people acting because they believe in the hype kills people.
posted by Bugbread at 2:14 AM on March 21, 2005


FEAR!!!!
posted by nofundy at 4:54 AM on March 21, 2005


Go back to sleep America, your government is in control.
/Hicks

If these dirty bombs had some military potential (i.e. the potential to fuck shit up in gratuitous ways), would it not be likely that 'we' would have some? They don't work, that is why they have never been used.

The Power of Nightmares still brimming with pertinent information 4 months after broadcast. If you haven't seen it yet, maybe it's time. *Looks at AlexReynolds*
posted by asok at 5:23 AM on March 21, 2005


People believing in the hype doesn't kill people, people acting because they believe in the hype kills people.

You're right. I need my Pedantry for Dummies back from scarabic.
posted by AlexReynolds at 8:36 AM on March 21, 2005


If these dirty bombs had some military potential (i.e. the potential to fuck shit up in gratuitous ways), would it not be likely that 'we' would have some? They don't work, that is why they have never been used.

Dirty bombs are not military weapons, they are political weapons, in the same way that chemical and biological agents are something we have but don't admit or talk much about.
posted by AlexReynolds at 8:38 AM on March 21, 2005


Hey, you were the one arguing that "hype doesn't kill people, belief in hype kills people". I figured if you wanted to be pedantic, we might as well not be half-assed about it.

asok : " If these dirty bombs had some military potential (i.e. the potential to fuck shit up in gratuitous ways), would it not be likely that 'we' would have some?"

Sure. Right next to our stockpiles of pungee sticks, rocks, and baseball bats with nails in them.

The whole point of dirty bombs is that they're (purportedly) somewhat effective and can be made by folks without access to the top technology and facilities necessary for making much more effective weapons. Same as baseball bats with nails in them. We, on the other hand, do have access to top technology and facilities, so why should we have dirty bombs?

Stuffing your clothes with newspaper keeps you warm during cold homeless winter nights, but I don't think it's likely that Bill Gates stuffs his clothes with newspaper. Complimentary ketchup packets from fast food places can be mixed with water to make a thin tomato soup that is more nutritious than plain water, but I don't suspect that Donald Trump drinks a lot of ketchup soup.
posted by Bugbread at 8:58 AM on March 21, 2005


Dirty bombs are not military weapons, they are political weapons, in the same way that chemical and biological agents are something we have but don't admit or talk much about.

so biological weapons are political weapons? what is the distinction here? If it kills people, it's a weapon. If the military uses it, it's a military weapon.

And the U.S. and Iraqi militaries have tested them, and, unlike biological weapons, found them unuseful.

...it can be vacuumed or cleaned with soap and water... (pdf)
posted by destro at 10:00 AM on March 21, 2005


bugbread, we use sticks as weapons (sometimes called batons). I would be suprised if there were not a variation on 'baseball bat with nail through' in the arsenal. We use the gamut of destructive power we have.
The majority of research and spending for the past half century or longer has been involved with arms. If a weapon has potential, or often even if it doesn't, it will have been researched, built and sold to someone.
That is the basis for my argument. We have many weapons which are out of date, next to useless or ineffective in modern warfare, but we don't have and never have had 'dirty' bombs of this type.

I am sure that the salespeople like the purchasers to buy the more expensive weapons, but I would bet that they also find themselves selling from the bargain basement.
posted by asok at 11:07 AM on March 21, 2005


asok : " bugbread, we use sticks as weapons (sometimes called batons). I would be suprised if there were not a variation on 'baseball bat with nail through' in the arsenal."

Ah, well if that comparison is allowed: our variation on dirty nuclear bombs is clean nuclear bombs. And we have plenty of those.
posted by Bugbread at 11:10 AM on March 21, 2005


A fairly reliable source, I would think, on radiation:
http://www.thebulletin.org/article.php?art_ofn=jf04koch

I could build a fuel-air bomb easier than I could build a "dirty" bomb. - And it would do hellacious amounts of damage.
http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/001/005abyvw.asp
posted by Smedleyman at 12:21 PM on March 21, 2005


True, which is what I believe Alex's point is above: a dirty bomb may do less physical damage than a conventional bomb, but it's scarier.
posted by Bugbread at 12:24 PM on March 21, 2005


We do use dirty bombs-- really small ones that are called DU bullets. They litter Iraq.
posted by chaz at 1:57 PM on March 21, 2005


Ah, good point, forgot about the depleted uranium.
posted by Bugbread at 2:58 PM on March 21, 2005


from the U.S. military:

"while RDDs were not effective as battlefield weapons, such weapons could have a significant psychological effect."


When they thought Saddam might use one agains the U.S. they found:
...it could not cause widespread radiation sickness, even if used against unprepared and unprotected civilians in a city. However, the report also concluded that any Iraqi use of an RDD would have a substantial psychological impact."


I don't think it's impossible for somebody to use one and do some harm, but it's quite unlikely compared to what has been presented to us as the looming dirty bomb threat. Look at how much destruction was caused by manure and gasoline.

The gov't is using this as a fearmongering tactic, plain and simple.
posted by destro at 3:04 PM on March 21, 2005


« Older Hitler's "fountain of life." In 1935, Heinrich Hi...  |  Sand circles.... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments