Dirty Bombs - what you should know

What is a dirty bomb?

The term dirty bomb is a colloquial description for a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD). This is a device designed for the purpose of dispersing radioactive material in order to cause damage, death or disruption.

Is a dirty bomb a type of nuclear bomb?

Although it is common to confuse the two, a dirty bomb is not a nuclear bomb.

A Radiological Dispersal Device uses dynamite, Semtex or another conventional explosive to disperse radioactive materials. The blast of the bomb has no more force or energy than the conventional explosive used to detonate it.

In contrast, the explosion of nuclear bomb would release vast quantities of energy, powerful enough to destroy an entire city and cause widespread radioactive contamination.

What would be the impact of a dirty bomb?

The dirty bomb is sometimes depicted as the ultimate terror weapon, capable of causing death and destruction on a colossal scale.  In reality, it would be extremely difficult to build a dirty bomb with the physical power to inflict mass casualties, or to contaminate a wide geographical area.

The conventional explosive used to detonate the bomb would be more likely to cause immediate death and injury than the radioactive material it released.

A dirty bomb is more likely to be used for the purpose of mass disruption than mass destruction. It could have the potential to generate large-scale panic, which would:

  • Put pressure on the emergency services
  • Create traffic chaos
  • Cause injury and death

Some experts warn that more people could suffer injury and death in the panic triggered by a dirty bomb, than by the incident itself.

The psychological impact of a dirty bomb exploding could also have serious economic consequences.  It could:

  • Undermine tourism
  • Affect property values
  • Increase security costs
  • Deter people from visiting shopping centres, cinemas, bars and other public places

However, if the public understands that the dirty bomb is first and foremost a weapon of fear, any disruptive impact can be minimised.