Radiological weapon

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A radiological weapon or radiological dispersion device (RDD) is any weapon that is designed to spread radioactive material with the intent to kill and cause disruption.[citation needed] According to the U.S. Department of Defense, an RDD is "any device, including any weapon or equipment, other than a nuclear explosive device, specifically designed to employ radioactive material by disseminating it to cause destruction, damage, or injury by means of the radiation produced by the decay of such material”.[1][2]

One type of RDD is a "conventional explosive combined with some type of radiological material", also known as a dirty bomb. It is not a true nuclear weapon and does not yield the same explosive power. It uses conventional explosives to spread radioactive material, most commonly the spent fuels from nuclear power plants or radioactive medical waste. "It is not a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD), but rather, as researcher Peter Probst calls it, a “weapon of mass disruption” (Hughes, 2002). In fact, effective dispersal ranges are rather limited. Most deaths (if any) would come from the initial explosion (non-nuclear), but it does depend on the type of radiological material used. (Department of Homeland Security [DHS], 2003)."[1][3][4]

Another version is the salted bomb, a true nuclear weapon designed to produce larger amounts of nuclear fallout than a regular nuclear weapon.


Radiological weapons of mass destruction have been suggested as a possible weapon of terrorism used to create panic and casualties in densely populated areas. They could also render a great deal of property uninhabitable for an extended period, unless costly remediation were undertaken. The radiological source and quality greatly impacts the effectiveness of a radiological weapon.

Factors such as: energy and type of radiation, half-life, longevity, availability, shielding, portability, and the role of the environment will determine the effect of the radiological weapon. Radioisotopes that pose the greatest security risk include: 137Cs, used in radiological medical equipment, 60Co, 241Am, 252Cf, 192Ir, 238Pu, 90Sr, 226Ra, and 238U.

All of these isotopes, except for the final one, are created in nuclear power plants. While the amount of radiation dispersed from the event will likely be minimal, the fact of any radiation may be enough to cause panic and disruption.


The professional history of radioactive weaponry may be traced to a 1940 science fiction story, "Solution Unsatisfactory"[5][not in citation given] by Robert A. Heinlein and a 1943 memo from James Bryant Conant, Arthur Holly Compton and Harold Urey to Brigadier General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project.

Transmitting a report entitled, "Use of Radioactive Materials as a Military Weapon," the Groves memo states:

File:Groves memo 30oct43 p1.GIF
October 30, 1943 memo from Drs. Conant, Compton, and Urey to Brigadier General L. R. Groves, Manhattan District, Oak Ridge, Tennessee; declassified June 5, 1974.

As a gas warfare instrument the material would ... be inhaled by personnel. The amount necessary to cause death to a person inhaling the material is extremely small. It has been estimated that one millionth of a gram accumulating in a person's body would be fatal. There are no known methods of treatment for such a casualty.... It cannot be detected by the senses; It can be distributed in a dust or smoke form so finely powdered that it will permeate a standard gas mask filter in quantities large enough to be extremely damaging....

Radioactive warfare can be used [...] To make evacuated areas uninhabitable; To contaminate small critical areas such as rail-road yards and airports; As a radioactive poison gas to create casualties among troops; Against large cities, to promote panic, and create casualties among civilian populations.

Areas so contaminated by radioactive dusts and smokes, would be dangerous as long as a high enough concentration of material could be maintained.... they can be stirred up as a fine dust from the terrain by winds, movement of vehicles or troops, etc., and would remain a potential hazard for a long time.

These materials may also be so disposed as to be taken into the body by ingestion instead of inhalation. Reservoirs or wells would be contaminated or food poisoned with an effect similar to that resulting from inhalation of dust or smoke. Four days production could contaminate a million gallons of water to an extent that a quart drunk in one day would probably result in complete incapacitation or death in about a month's time.

The United States, however, chose not to pursue radiological weapons during World War II, though early on in the project considered it as a backup plan in case nuclear fission proved impossible to tame. Some US policymakers and scientists involved in the project felt that radiological weapons would qualify as chemical weapons and thus violate international law.[citation needed]


One possible way of dispersing the material is by using a dirty bomb, a conventional explosive which disperses radioactive material. Dirty bombs are not a type of nuclear weapon, which requires a nuclear chain reaction and the creation of a critical mass. Whereas a nuclear weapon will usually create mass casualties immediately following the blast, a dirty bomb scenario would initially cause only minimal casualties from the conventional explosion.

Means of radiological warfare that do not rely on any specific weapon, but rather on spreading radioactive contamination via a food chain or water table, seem to be more effective in some ways, but share many of the same problems as chemical warfare.

Military uses

Radiological weapons are widely considered to be militarily useless for a state-sponsored army and are initially not hoped to be used by any military forces. Firstly, the use of such a weapon is of no use to an occupying force, as the target area becomes uninhabitable (due to the fallout caused by radioactive poisoning of the involved environment).

Furthermore, area-denial weapons are generally of limited use to an attacking army, as it slows the rate of advance.

Dirty bombs

A dirty bomb is a radiological weapon dispersed with conventional explosives.

There is currently (as of 2007) an ongoing debate about the damage that terrorists using such a weapon might inflict. Many experts believe that a dirty bomb such that terrorists might reasonably be able to construct would be unlikely to harm more than a few people and hence it would be no more deadly than a conventional bomb. Furthermore, the casualties would be a result of the initial explosion, because alpha and beta emitting material needs to be inhaled to do damage to the human body. Gamma radiation emitting material is so radioactive that it can't be deployed without wrapping an amount of shielding material around the bomb that would make transport by car or plane impossible without risking detection. Because of this a dirty bomb with radioactive material around an explosive device would be almost useless, unless said shielding was removed shortly before detonation. This is not only because of the effectiveness but also because this material would be easy to clean up. Furthermore, the possibility of terrorists making a gas or aerosol that is radioactive is very unlikely because of the complex chemical work to achieve this goal.[6]

Hence, this line of argument goes, the objectively dominant effect would be the moral and economic damage due to the massive fear and panic such an incident would spur. On the other hand, some believe that the fatalities and injuries might be in fact much more severe. This point was made by physicist Peter D. Zimmerman (King's College London) who reexamined the Goiânia accident which is arguably comparable.[7] and popularized in a subsequent fictionalized account produced by the BBC and broadcast in the United States by PBS.[8] The latter program showed how shielding might be used to minimize the detection risk.

Salted bomb

Main article: Salted bomb

A salted bomb is a theoretical nuclear weapon designed to produce enhanced quantities of radioactive fallout, rendering a large area uninhabitable. As far as is publicly known none have ever been built.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Rickert, Paul (2005-12-31). "The Likely Effect of a Radiological Dispersion Device". Liberty University. pp. 2, 3. Retrieved 21 October 2014. 
  2. Ford, J. (March 1998). "Radiological Dispersion Devices: Assessing the transnational threat". National Defense University - Institute for National Strategic Studies - Strategic Forum. Archived from the original on December 12, 2005. Retrieved December 31, 2005. 
  3. Hughes, D. (4 March 2002). "When terrorists go nuclear". Popular Mechanics. Archived from the original on September 19, 2005. Retrieved December 31, 2005. 
  4. "Radiological Dispersion Devices Fact Sheet". Department of Homeland Security. 10 February 2003. Archived from the original on December 29, 2005. Retrieved December 31, 2005. 
  5. Full story at publisher's web site
  6. [1][dead link]
  7. Dirty Bombs: The Threat Revisited in Defense Horizons, Feb. 2004, a publication of the National Defense University
  8. Dirty Bomb

External links