If Boston had been nuclear

When I first heard of the Boston bombings, my immediate reaction was gratitude that the bombs weren't radioactive. Working at Ploughshares Fund, it's hard not to be aware of the very real possibility that radioactive materials could easily be part of any terrorist attack on the U.S. – domestic or foreign – and to think of how much worse that would be than the already horrible consequences of the type of IEDs used at Boston's marathon. 

Apparently, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists were thinking along the same lines. The venerable magazine of all things WMD today spelled out exactly what the consequences would have been if the Boston bombers used real weapons of mass destruction

Had the Boston bombs been dirty bombs, a full-blown radiation response would have been required. The response planners would have had to deal with the fact that people not showing visible physical injuries could have ingested or inhaled radioactive material and been contaminated.... 

The radiation aspect of a dirty bomb is perhaps the most disturbing because it goes unseen. Individuals unharmed by the initial explosion – such as first responders – could still be exposed to the danger of dispersed radioactive materials. The article goes on to detail the longlasting effects of a dirty bomb attack – not just on the environment, but on the American psyche. It would have been Boston meeting Fukushima, with long-term worries of ground and water contamination pairing with fears of cancer and other diseases of radiation exposure. 

The victims of the Boston bombings and their families may suffer lifelong mental impacts in addition to injuries from the blasts. While the physical injuries from dirty bombs would be about the same, they could lead to a wider range of physical and mental effects. There would be a group of potential long-term victims left to wonder about their status for decades, uncertain as to whether the exposure they received would cause medical problems. 

It's the stuff of nightmares and movies, but it could happen:

Although the Boston attackers did not use dirty bombs, with a little effort and planning they likely could have stolen radioactive materials from commercial or medical users, or from university research facilities. To be sure, the radioactive material they could have obtained likely would not have been the most dangerous kind. Plus, it's not clear how effective their pressure cooker bombs would have been at dispersing it. 

Curious to know more? Check out the full article at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists


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