The damage that an attack with Dirty Bombs would cause



In the First World War, chemical weapons of mass destruction, for instance, the insecticides employed in the field to kill insect pests, were already used. For military purposes it was an important improvement. Several gases were used, since many tests were performed on civil and military personnel until finding the best; tear gas obtained the best results, as well as disabling agents such as mustard gas and lethal gas phosgene.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

Bomb of the Czar, detonated by the Soviet Union on October 30, 1961. Hydrogen explosive, 50 megatons Power

The nuclear bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the Second World War in 1945. On July 1, 1968, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed by 190 countries, only allowing that five countries remain armed with nuclear weapons; the USA UK, France, Russia and China. They are also the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. This pact was signed due to the missile crisis in 1962; The US discovered a battery of Soviet nuclear missiles on the island of Cuba.

North Korea abandoned the Treaty in 2003, when inspectors found undeclared nuclear facilities in the country. After this, North Korea has conducted five tests in 2006, 2009, 2013 and two in 2016.

Differences between Nuclear Bomb and Dirty Bomb

We should not confuse a dirty bomb with a nuclear bomb as there are several differences. A nuclear bomb can be detonated in the air, water or on land and it would cause a toxic cloud of several hundred to several thousands of kilometers, it could even affect numerous parts of an entire continent and it would kill thousands or even millions of people. Everything will depend on several factors that could affect the result and the effects caused by the bomb, including; the power in Kilotons of the bomb, the wind at the time of the explosion or the height from the ground that it has been detonated, as well as other details such as the rugosity of the terrain on a large scale such as mountains or valleys.

Dirty bomb activated by time.

A dirty bomb on the other hand is an improvised explosive device (IED), also called”Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD)” It carries two charges, `on the one hand it has an improvised explosive charge, with conventional explosives such as Gunpowder, TNT, Dynamite, etc.… which is responsible for spreading the secondary charge that is composed of a radioactive load that emits gamma rays, which once spread, would take many years to disappear and it will provoke an inhabited area.

The purpose of this IED is to contaminate an area around the bomb with radioactive material, including incapacitating victims who come in contact with the dispersed product. In this way the use of the land or specific area by civil and military personnel for generations will be denied until it could be cleaned and occupied again.

For a dirty bomb the normal way to be detonated is on the ground and the damage that it can cause will depend on several things such as the amount and type of explosives used to detonate it, the amount of radioactive material, the wind at that time and if there is a nearby river or lake or if it detonates in the middle of a city.

Theft of radioactive material

  • January 2003[1], Herat, Afghanistan: “According to the evidence discovered in Herat, including detailed diagrams and documents stored on computers, British intelligence agents and weapons researchers conclude that al Qaeda has managed to build a small dirty bomb, although the device has not been found. Officials do not know how much radiation the dirty bomb could spread, but they suspect that the Taliban regime in Afghanistan helped al Qaeda build the device by providing radioactive sources of medical devices. In addition, Abu Zubaydah, the captured lieutenant of Al Qaeda now in US custody, told interrogators that such a device existed. In Kabul, in April 2002, the IAEA experts secured several powerful sources of unmanned radiation, mainly cobalt, once used in medical and research applications.”(Deusser, 2005)
  • In November 2015[2], a briefcase the size of a laptop was stolen in Baghdad, Iraq, from an oil company, immediately the notice was given to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and all alarms were activated by fear that this radioactive material which uses gamma rays to work, fell into the hands of the terrorist group Daesh.
  • Nuclear Densimeter with radioactive components such as Americium 241, Beryllium and Cesium

    On April 13, 2017[3], a nuclear Densimeter was stolen in the region of Southern France, once again all alarms jumped among the law enforcement. In the case of this Densimeter, we have to know it is a radioactive source that does not produce any danger if it is not manipulated inside. But, the protocol to follow in case of emergency is to establish a security perimeter of 15 meters so that nobody will approach. This radioactive source is sealed and there is no risk of contamination, but instead there is an extreme risk of radiation from anyone trying to open it.

  • On February 8, 2018[4], a portable Nuclear Densimeter was stolen in Mexico; it emits ionizing radiation and is used to measure the humidity and density of base soils, concrete and asphalt. The radioactive material used is Americium 241 to measure humidity and Cesium 137 is used to measure the density of soils.
  • Nuclear source[5]: sealed source, with double encapsulation in stainless steel. Gamma radiation source of Cesium 137 (intensity 10 mCi) and neutron of Americium 241- Beryllium (40 mCi).


The dirty bomb could really cause panic and fear among the population, the emergency services would have to implement their emergency protocols.

It seems quite unlikely that with the quantities of stolen nuclear material, an explosion of a Radiological IED can release enough radioactive amounts to kill or cause serious diseases to spread to people. This would be so depending on the amount of conventional explosive that would cause more damage to people than radioactive material.

Although the probability of damage caused by dirty bomb is low, the consequences would be catastrophic for everyone, both terrorists and victims. All law enforcement, governments, airlines and security companies of the countries as well as civilian personnel, must remain alert to a terrorist threat of this nature.







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M.Sgt. Miguel Ángel Zamorano Juan, of the Spanish Army is an EOD Analyst in the Defeat the Device Branch at the Counter Improvised Explosive Devices Center of Excellence (CIED COE) of NATO. He has served as part of the Special Operations Command. He has been deployed in Former Yugoslavia, Lebanon and Iraq. He has been to trainings on EOD in many countries. He studied Criminology and now he has been nominated as Action Officer for the Engineers of the United Nations Military Unit Manual (UN MUM) for training in Nepal.