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July 12, 2007

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Yet another great example of the fact that we do not at present have a functioning Executive Branch.

It's at times like these that I understand why you have a rule against profanity in the comments section.

My god, this was hilarious, in between being truly scary.

How much does it take to impress upon the public at large, the distinction between rhetoric and competent action - regarding homeland security, or any function of government?

Talk about making a mountain out of a mole hill.

The first question is how is the government suppose to determine what is a "legitimate business?"

Second, the amount of radioactive material in a moisture-density gauge is small (8 millicuries and if you do not know what that is then how can you have an opinion?).

Most of the business that use such sources are small and many work out of their homes or other not so traditional places.

The Nuclear Reguatory Commissionused to keep an electronic copy of all licenses on the web so that everyone could see who was legitimate but those were removed. Now a seller of radioactive material depends upon a faxed copy of the document and thus make forging easier.

We need to start taking some cues from China on how to treat people who display utter incompetence in the executive branch.

Vacancies open in the executed branch? ;-)

Superdestroyer is right. The amount of radioactive material we'd be talking about if the scam involved only "dozens" of millicurie-sized gamma emitters is so small as to be beneath any serious terrorists' level of interest, and certainly wholly non-fatal in and of itself. It's three orders of magnitude less than what you'd need for a serious dirty bomb.

I'd rather the NRC focus on the serious radiological weapons threats (ie, curie-level gamma emitters). Of course, there's no evidence one can draw from this story either that they are or aren't.

Indeed, the NRC official quoted in the article said as much:

But he said the danger associated with the amount of radioactive material the auditors were trying to buy should not be overstated. And the operation would have been much more expensive and complicated than pulling off a more conventional attack involving a truck bomb or a chemical tanker truck. “Why would I not blow up a chemical tanker on a train with chlorine in it or other toxic materials, at a tiny fraction of the cost before doing this very elaborate exercise?” Mr. McGaffigan said.

I'm as willing to believe in the destruction of government usefulness as the next guy, but this is a pretty contrived example, and only serves to reinforce the myth of how bad a "dirty bomb" would be.

Y'know, it'd be really easy for the government to fake a dirty bomb attack. Nobody knows what one would look like. A flash-bang grenade and a smoke grenade in a backpack in a mall would probably be an adequate simulacrum of a dirty bomb designed to spread deadly particles. Cops and Feds swoop in, evacuate the mall and surrounding blocks.

Chances are, nobody would have a chance to get close enough with a geiger counter to provide a second opinion.

"The first question is how is the government suppose to determine what is a "legitimate business?""

FBI visit to the premises. Financial history.

Go to an auto-body shop and buy four gallons of acetone, and you'll find yourself producing an ID and filling out a form so the DEA can make sure you're not running a meth lab. Do you think we can afford equivalent scrutiny on radiologicals?

I'm completely willing to believe that Bush has deeply screwed up this type of thing. But this case doesn't seem to do anything to show it.

I just want to jump in on this thread and note that a so-called "dirty bomb" has been one of the most over-hyped threats over the past six years. Part of this is because it makes a good news story, part of this is because it's easier to make a case for detaining someone on flimsy charges if he's planning on using something nuclear, and part of it is an almost superstitious fear of radiation that we tend to have.

But the result is that if we ever got hit with a "dirty bomb," the result would, ceteris paribus, be some people who had a slightly increased risk of cancer in their retirement years. Because there's been so much "dirty bomb" hype, the real death and chaos is going to come in the panic when the media reports that we've been nuked and people scramble over each other trying to get away from the fallout demons.

I just want to jump in on this thread and note that a so-called "dirty bomb" has been one of the most over-hyped threats over the past six years. Part of this is because it makes a good news story, part of this is because it's easier to make a case for detaining someone on flimsy charges if he's planning on using something nuclear, and part of it is an almost superstitious fear of radiation that we tend to have.

But the result is that if we ever got hit with a "dirty bomb," the result would, ceteris paribus, be some people who had a slightly increased risk of cancer in their retirement years. Because there's been so much "dirty bomb" hype, the real death and chaos is going to come in the panic when the media reports that we've been nuked and people scramble over each other trying to get away from the fallout demons.

I'm imagining a plot involving the purchase of thousands of old wristwatches, from the faces and hands of which radioluminescent paint would be scraped to amass the materials required to contaminate the left half of one step on the front stoop of a rowhouse using a Ladyfinger firecracker.

But all kidding aside, in my opinion, the larger point of the post would remain intact exluding the part about dirty bombs.

or, they could buy 5000 smoke detectors... that'd give them a heaping gram of Americium-241, which would do essentially nothing health-wise but would surely scare the crap out of the media.

I'm no Bush defender, but this is just some headline grabbing by Norm Coleman, who never would have made it to the Senate if Paul Wellstone's plane hadn't gone down. Norm is on the Senate Investigations Committee and has produced a lot of useless crap.

Hey, Norm, maybe somebody should have investigated the Wellstone Plane crash, ya' think?

Canada isn't doing very well in this regard, either.

If I suspected competence on the part of the DHS I'd think that the dirty bomb hype was a tactic to get terrorists to waste time, money, and energy. A dirty bomb is by definition radioactive, making it easier to detect than a non-dirty bomb, and the radiation needs to be fairly penetrating in order to really contaminate an area, making it still easier to detect. The penetrating radiation is going to inevitably spend a long time zapping the terrorists during the manufacturing and transport phase, so tracking them if they survive is going to be a lot easier. Nuclear materials are hard to get in significant amounts, so again time is wasted and probability of detection increases. Finaly, a successful dirty bomb attack would still be very inefficient at contaminating an area, creating hotspots which could be either cleaned up or entombed in place, with only negligable persistent contamination at hazardous levels. Dispersing materials is difficult, all the more so when you're working from a basement lab.

cleek: which would do essentially nothing health-wise but would surely scare the crap out of the media.

Agreed. The “dirty bomb” threat is way over-hyped. All you need is something to make the Geiger counters go off, and then you have teams of guys in moon suits showing up with the cameras rolling. The effect is 99% psychological. It would be effective psychologically and economically, but not actually that harmful over a large area.

The only actual threat would be if someone got their hands on some plutonium. Now that is some incredibly nasty stuff.

It would be effective psychologically and economically, but not actually that harmful over a large area.

It could severely reduce real estate values -- to almost nothing in the closest blocks, to very low in the surrounding neighborhood, to low in that part of a city, to maybe half? in the rest of that city.

Fifty bombs like that might have a dramatic effect on our financial structure. Unless people wised up.

Probably the easiest way to get enough stuff to make some Geiger counters happy would be to sneak into the inorganic chemistry and/or mineralogy departement of the next university and to steal a few pieces of Thorium or Uranium minerals/salts. Grind them down and distribute them strategically in the targeted neighbourhood. Then inform the media. The hype will do the rest.

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