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'Dirty bomb' threat

Radioactive materials (RM) are widely used in industry, medicine, agriculture and scientific research. Within this variety of practices there is a range of radionuclides, emitting different types of nuclear radiation, alpha-particles, electrons, neutrons, X and gamma-rays. High-activity RM in several physical and chemical forms, if not managed safely and securely during their production, use, transportation, storage and disposal, can cause severe deterministic effects to individuals in a short period of the exposure time, as well as induce long-term radioactive contamination.

An intentional dispersion of RM into the environment and the intentional exposure of people by radioactive contamination of public domain areas may be extremely harmful. The reduction of the threat of radiological weapon attack by terrorist groups using, for example, explosive dispersion of radioactive materials (“dirty bomb” or RDD - radiation dispersion device), is one of the priority tasks of the IAEA Nuclear Safety and Security Programme. Security issues concerning radioactive materials are addressed through several projects of the Nuclear Security Plan of the Agency.

The environmental impact, induced by an explosion of a “dirty bomb”, radiation protection and decontamination measures and their cost depend on post-explosion spatial and time distribution of radioactivity of specific radioactive materials, physical and chemical properties of the fragments of dispersed RM. Radioactive materials demonstrate different ability for fire or explosive dispersal and vaporization. Depending on physical and chemical forms of radioactive material used for a RDD, the dispersed radioactive products may be in form of liquids, dust, aerosols or solid fragments. It will determine the character of the induced radioactive contamination.

The whole picture of an environmental impact, induced by an explosion of a “dirty bomb”, or damage of radiation sources containers, depend not only on post-accidental spatial distribution of radioactivity, but also on its time evolution. The features of targets for explosive radiation contamination, e.g. settlements, facilities, public places, agricultural lands, drinking water supplies, are important as well. Studies of these aspects of explosive dispersion of radioactivity, including numerical imulations and field testing, provide a basis for development of security measures for transportation, storage and operation of specific RM to prevent their malevolent use.

Detailed study of these aspects of explosive dispersion of radioactivity would provide a basis for development of relevant security measures, covering prevention, detection and response issues.

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| Last update: Thursday, 19 February, 2015.