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dirty bomb

noun [countable]

a radiological weapon which uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive material through the atmosphere

'More than two-thirds of authorities and police forces do not have plans to deal with people contaminated in a "dirty bomb" attack.'

The Sunday Times 24th September 2004

'Since the attacks on the United States in September 2001, there have been more than a thousand references in British national newspapers, working out at almost one every single day, to the phrase "dirty bomb".'

The Guardian 15th October 2004

First there were conventional weapons – from knives and swords through to explosives and guns. Then, in the last century, we began to talk of unconventional weapons, as the world became preoccupied with chemical and nuclear warheads. Now into the noughties , we've gone one step further and decided it would be a good idea to combine both conventional and unconventional ways of harming people, and developed the dirty bomb, a device which uses conventional dynamite to disperse unconventional radioactive materials into the atmosphere.

though a dirty bomb does not create an actual nuclear blast, it could kill as many as 1000 people in a densely populated city

A dirty bomb, also known as a Radiological Dispersal Device (or RDD for short), uses C-4 explosive to propel dangerous nuclear material through the air. The bomb's potency can be varied by controlling the amounts of explosive and nuclear material used. Though a dirty bomb does not create an actual nuclear blast, it could kill as many as 1000 people in a densely populated city and make the area immediately surrounding the blast uninhabitable for several months. It could also pose subsequent cancer risks for many decades.

Concern about the risk of someone triggering a dirty bomb has gained momentum during 2004, particularly in the light of evidence suggesting that the smuggling of quantities of radiological materials that could be used in dirty (as opposed to nuclear) bombs has risen dramatically. A June 2004 article in the New Scientist magazine reported that in 2003 there were 51 such trafficking incidents, compared to only eight in 1996.

The threat of a dirty bomb attack has become a major cause for concern internationally, leading governments to stage simulations such as the one in the Paris metro in October 2004, where a simulated dirty bomb attack was used to test the response of emergency workers, should such a terrorist strike occur.

Background – dirty bomb

The term dirty bomb first came into media focus in June 2002, when an al-Qaida terrorist named José Padilla was arrested at a Chicago airport and charged with assisting in the construction of such a device. The media have also recently been using the term dirty bomb in the general context of what are referred to as improvised explosive devices (or IEDs for short): devices used by terrorists and guerrillas in unconventional warfare for the dispersal of chemical weapons.

A less recent usage of the term dirty bomb is in the comparative description of older, less-efficient nuclear weapons. Early nuclear weapons generated significantly larger amounts of radioactive waste than their modern counterparts, hence they were thought of as 'dirty'.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 29th November 2004.

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