dosimeter measuring radioactivity in a factory

What if a dirty bomb went off in your food facility?  Two security experts from the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory drove to San Antonio in 2017 with a sensitive mission: to retrieve dangerous nuclear materials from a nonprofit research lab there. They stopped at a hotel on the way, and in the morning discovered that sensors and small samples of plutonium and cesium for use in calibrating the sensors had been stolen from their car. That’s not the only time such materials have gone missing.

Plutonium is used for making nuclear weapons, but the device referenced as stolen contains an insufficient quantity to make an actual nuclear weapon. The plutonium and cesium referenced in the article, however, are sufficient to make a small “dirty bomb.” “Dirty bombs” are not nuclear weapons, but consist of conventional or illicit explosives that disperse the radioactive material.

The main effect of a dirty bomb results from the explosion, whereas the radioactive material contaminates large areas, sometimes hundreds to thousands of yards or more, depending on the size of the explosion and atmospheric conditions at the time of the detonation. First responders and victims can be contaminated by radioactive debris or even wounded with radioactive shrapnel and debris.

Cleanup of the blast area would entail decontamination of all radioactive shrapnel, dust, and debris. This process of decontamination would take time, making entry into the area impossible until free of radioactive material. Decontamination would need to begin immediately so that wind and rain would not further spread radioactive debris.

Detonation of a dirty bomb in a confined space, such as in a food processing plant, would present additional challenges, likely causing the facility to be closed for many months if not permanently. Food products inside that plant would also have to be buried as radioactive waste if found to contain radioactive debris. Realistically,  all food products in an affected facility would be buried out of a sense of caution.

Plutonium- and cesium-containing dirty bombs would each present their own set of unique challenges. The half-life of plutonium-239 is 24,100 years, meaning it is a very stable isotope and therefore a very long-term concern. The half-life of cesium-137 is 30.17 years.   Half-life describes the time necessary for the radioactivity of a specific isotope to decay to half of its original value. The longer the half-life, the more stable or persistent the isotope.  READ MORE