June 16, 2004

Dirty Bomb? It's "In The Bag"

One of the more feared (but rather misunderstood) new terrorist weapons is the "dirty bomb," a conventional explosive surrounded by pieces of radioactive material such as medical waste or spent nuclear fuel instead of ordinary shrapnel. While fatalities from the actual explosion would be relatively limited, the amount of contamination produced by even a small bomb could be considerable - entire city blocks could be rendered off-limits because of hazardous fallout, The Nuclear Regulatory Commission calls dirty bombs "weapons of mass disruption" rather than "weapons of mass destruction" - they create more fear and panic than actual damage, although the financial costs of cleaning up after a dirty bomb could be enormous.

A Canadian company, Vanguard Response Systems, has developed a unique containment system that can be deployed in the event a dirty bomb is discovered before it explodes. It uses a patented "tent" made of several layers of bullet-proof-vest type material, and a special shock-absorbing liquid foam that not only damps the blast, but binds the bomb fragments and radioactive fallout dust produced. Discovery Channel Canada [video stream] shows the containment tents in action using real radioactive material.

This sounds like an intriguing invention - but one with some real-life limitations. I'm afraid the caveat is that bomb squads have to locate the dirty bomb, evacuate the area, and assemble and fill the foam tent before the bomb explodes; very likely if and when one does go off somewhere, it may be without any warning at all. Still, it's some small comfort knowing a device like this exists. Vanguard says the tent and foam system can also be deployed using robotic methods. [via Samizdata]

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