Calculating the cost of dirty bombs


One of the more frightening scenarios that civil defence teams worry about is the possibility that a bomb contaminated with radioactive material would be detonated in a heavily populated area.

Various research teams have considered this problem and come to similar conclusions–that the actual threat to human health from such a device is low. Some even claim that terror groups must have come to a similar conclusion which is why we’ve not been on the receiving end of such an attack. The panic such a device would cause is another questions.

Today Theodore Liolios from a private institution called theĀ  Hellenic Arms Control Center in Thessaloniki in Greece, goes through the figures.

He says the most likely material to be used in such an attack is Cesium-137, widely used throughout the developed and developing world as a source for medical therapies.

The unstated implication is that it would be relatively easy to get hold of this stuff from a poorly guarded hospital. Exactly this happened in Goiania in Brazil when an abandoned hospital was broken into and its supply of cesium-137 distributed around the surrounding neighbourhoods. The incident left 200 people contaminated. Four of them died.

But a dirty bomb would not be nearly as lethal. The trouble with them (from a terrorist’s point of view, at least) is that distributing radioactive material over a large area dramatically reduces the exposure that people receive. Particularly when most could be warned to stay indoors or be evacuated (unlike the Goiania incident in which most people were unaware they were contaminated).

Liolios calculates that anybody within a 300 metre range of a dirty bomb would increase their lifetime risk of cancer mortality by about 1.5 per cent. And then only if they were unable to take shelter or leave the area. That’s about 280 people given the kind of densities you expect in metropolitan areas.

And he goes on to say that it is reasonable to assume that a cesium-137 dirty bomb would not increase the cancer mortality risk for the entire city by a statistically significant amount.

But the terror such a device might cause is another question. Liolios reckons that current radiation safety standards would mean the evacuation of some 78 square kilometres around ground zero. That would affect some 78,000 people, cost $7.8m per day to evacuate and some $78m to decontaminate.

That seems a tad conservative but however it is calculated, it may turn out to be chickenfeed compared to the chaos caused by panic, which may well result in more deaths than the bomb itself could claim. How to calculate the effect of that?

Ref: The Effects of Using Cesium-137 Teletherapy Sources as a Radiological Weapon

4 Responses to “Calculating the cost of dirty bombs”

  1. Eivind says:

    78 square kms of metropolitan area is evacuated, and this means 78000 people needs to evacuate ? These numbers sounds order-of-magnitude off.

    The only reason anyone would do such a thing is for sheer terror, so obviously they’d go for a densely populated area.

    Manhattan is 60 square kms, but somewhat longish, so let’s say you’d need to evacuate all of it. That’s 1.7 MILLION people though, not 78000, so wrong by a factor of 30.

    Okay, so Manhattan is a special case of sorts, but a terrorist would offcourse purposefully target a high-density area.

    But even LA in total has a density of over 3000 pro square km, and the densest districts are offcourse much higher than that.

    Seems to me 10.000 people/squarekm is a much better assumption than 1000, when you’re dealing with a situation where someone deliberately put a bomb in a high-density area. (manhattan is 70.000/squarekm, but as I said, that’s kinda a special case)

    If the rest of the assumptions are equally much off, I don’t see that this study even manages to get close to a realistic scenario.

  2. Fred says:

    Of course, the author is Greek, and his purpose is likely to assess the threat for his country. Judging from the size and population of the two most populated regions of Greece, a density of 1000 per square km is not out of the question. Both Attica and Central Macedonia (location of Athens and Thesalloniki) have population densities of around 1000 per square km. Of course that is average density, not the peak density.

  3. Michael Leza says:

    Panic in disasters is largely a myth, mostly created by media manipulation to sensationalize an event. (google for panic myth for more reading)

  4. Ski says:

    >The incident left 200 people contaminated. Four of them died.
    That is a bit of an understatement about the Goiania incident. These might have been the 1st order effects, but from a recent visit there, I can tell you that (a) the cancer incidence rate is much higher that in other parts of the country, and (b) I personally know several young adults in their 20’s from one family with severe cancer. That leads me to believe that the secondary effects of the incident are actually way more severe than just 4 dead. Maybe the Greek author should make a field trip and reassess his numbers.