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Securo-prof claims to invent new, much deadlier dirty bomb

Probably best dealt with by a cold shower

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Researchers from King's College London have raised the spectre of a new terrorist technique which would "kill an order of magnitude more people than a dirty bomb" and is "likely to incite considerably more fear".

Writing in securo-thinktank journal Survival (short digest here - full article requires payment), James Acton, M Brooke Rogers and Peter Zimmerman lay out their thoughts. The article is called Beyond the Dirty Bomb: Re-thinking Radiological Terror.

Essentially, the three academics have been inspired by the recent murder of Russian emigre Alexander Litvinenko, internally poisoned with radioactive Polonium-210. They have thought of a new abbreviation to describe mass radiological poisoning without the use of explosives - I3, for ingestion, inhalation and immersion. The idea is that terrorists might get large numbers of people to swallow, breathe, or be drenched with fluids containing deadly amounts of radioactive isotopes.

The Guardian reports on the research this morning, and Guardian scribe Julian Borger spoke to Mr Zimmerman, who is professor and chair of science and security at King's College London.

"The article does not provide details of the most devastating method of attack the authors have conceived, for security reasons, but Professor Zimmerman described one scenario using a water-soluble radioactive isotope widely used in hospitals and industry: 'I can then tap into the anti-fire spray in a theatre, and if I can trigger the spray, I can soak everyone in the room'," Borger wrote.

Prof Zimmerman is talking about powdered caesium-137, widely used in radiotherapy machinery and such like.

According to the UN nuclear watchdog, just such a nightmare scenario already occurred in Brazil in 1987.

In that case, scavengers broke open a canister of caesium-137 from an old radiotherapy machine. Brazilian locals, thinking the glowing blue powder was pretty, circulated the stuff widely over the next week. Many rubbed it on themselves. Others ate food adulterated with the powder. In all, 237 people were reckoned to have been contaminated by the Brazilian authorities. Four of them died, and a major cleanup operation was required in the various affected homes and businesses.

So, terrorists might get hold of some caesium-137 and put it into a sprinkler system, say in a theatre. Hundreds of people would then be drenched with a solution of the isotope. Probably they wouldn't start drinking it, though, and it's reasonable to hope that they might shower quite soon rather than rubbing the solution into their skins and waiting a week or so.

Indeed, if it was known what had occurred, the best defence would be to leave the sprayers on until all the contaminated water had been washed off with fresh - such is a standard defence against fallout in military organisations. Royal Navy warships are fitted with deck water-spray points for precisely this reason.

All in all, then, such an attack could be expected to be significantly less deadly than the Brazilian mishap. So it might kill one or two people tops. Why not just block the fire exits and do a bit of arson? You'd kill a lot more people that way, and you'd need even less knowhow. Why not sabotage some railway tracks, or do your arson in the Tube - Potters' Bar, King's Cross, here we come again. Why not sneak about taking raw chicken out of restaurant fridges at night, then putting it back in without the chef knowing. Why not drive an 18-wheeler into a school playground at 50mph? Why not pour oil out of a car window along the fast lane of the M25 just before rush hour?

No need to bust into any hospitals or hang around the radioisotope bazaars of Central Asia for any of that, is there? And you'd kill a lot of people.

Prof Zimmerman's proposal is a tough new control and licencing regime for all radioactive materials (bound to have a great effect on the NHS budget). Maybe his special undisclosed attack method really is so deadly as to justify this. He told the Graun that his secret plan "would be capable of killing several hundred, maybe upwards of a thousand, and paralysing a city without any question at all", so maybe it is.

Still, what's next? Control and licencing of petrol, matches and prybars? Security cameras and alarms in every fridge?

No, obviously not. Terrorist incidents with one or two figure death tolls are only different from the ordinary run of accidents and crime and deadly mayhem if we make them so.

Perhaps Prof Zimmerman has thought of something new - 1,000 dead in one hit would be serious (your chance of survival as a Londoner, though? 99.99 per cent or better). But his caesium-137 sprinkler attack notion doesn't lend much credence to his arguments. Nor does his decision to publish now, before the suggested countermeasures are in place - which they surely will be presently, if his special-sauce attack plan is as advertised.

Apparently, one of Zimmerman's co-authors, Brooke Rogers, would like to see an intensive information campaign to keep the public informed and prevent panic.

We're doing our best on that one. It's hard to say that she and her co-authors are, though. ®

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