May 1, 2005 Homeland security officials are tapping researchers' capability to predict the paths of toxic waste spills and hazardous airborne particles. Using computer science and mathematics, along with information on the wind and other climate, they can make estimates of how the toxin will disperse and where the plume will go.
SILVER SPRING, Md.--September 11 made us very aware of how vulnerable we really are. Whether it's biological warfare or just accidental chemical spills, it turns out the weather report we see every day may save us.
We've all seen maps on TV telling us about the weather close to and far from home. Meteorologists at the National Weather Service have spent years working to perfect this process.
"One hundred twenty-two forecast offices around the country already monitor the atmosphere and issue warnings to protect public life and property," says Richard Jesuroga, NOAA Project Director at Silver Spring, Md.
It made sense, when the Department of Homeland Security was looking for an effective way to warn people of toxic waste spills or airborne particles, it turned to the National Weather Service.
Jesuroga says, "If we know the point of release, we know where the plume is going to go, and with the wind and stability information we can make estimations about the dispersion of the toxin," using computer science and mathematics to find out who or what would be in its path.
Then they can take advantage of Reverse 911 call out technology to warn the public.
But there are still challenges to work out. For example, according to Jesuroga the technology to get into the street canyons of cities like New York, Chicago areas like that, is still being developed. "The nice thing is that we have the basic infrastructure in place to get these systems out there and get these protections in place for the citizens of our country," he says, which helps officials and the public, too.
The first field test of the Capital Project Test Warning System will take place this summer in Washington, D.C. Scientists hope to have the system up and running nationwide in five years.
Half nuclear weapon, half conventional explosive, a dirty bomb is cause for concern because it could potentially spread radioactive material over a broad region. But dirty bombs aren't as scary as you might think.
Basically, a small amount of radioactive material is surrounding by a conventional explosive, such as TNT. When the bomb detonates, the radioactive material becomes airborne and scatters across the surrounding area.
A dirty bomb is not "nuclear" in the sense of an atomic or hydrogen bomb, or even a nuclear power plant. There is no fission (splitting of the atomic nucleus) or fusion (combining atomic nuclei). Instead, highly unstable versions of some radioactive elements decay rapidly, emitting rays of energy, such as gamma rays that damage living cells, in the process.
It's the radiation dosage that determines how much damage is likely to be done. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors of nuclear bombs were exposed to enormous doses of radiation -- exactly how much depended on how far they were from the center of the blast. In contrast, small amounts of radiation reach us every day from the Sun, and we are sometimes exposed to carefully calculated doses of radiation when we get an X-ray or a radiation treatment.
Dirty bombs, while dangerous, are unlikely to emit radiation in highly concentrated amounts. That's because the bigger the conventional bomb that distributes the radioactive material, the better it will spread. More people will be exposed to a lower dose of radiation in a larger explosion; a smaller explosion would expose a few people to a very high dose. It's still cause for concern, but would not necessarily lead to a sharp increase in cancer deaths, for example.
The most likely source of radioactive material for a dirty bomb would be the radioactive isotopes used to sterilize food and medical equipment, or to treat cancer. The most highly radioactive are cobalt-60 and cesium-137. But handling these materials may also kill the bomb maker. Unshielded cesium-137, for example, could kill the handler in minutes unless it is shielded with lead. This type of bomb would be large and unwieldy, and easily detectable by security systems.
The American Meteorological Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.