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Worst 'dirty bomb' materials hardest to get

By Thurston Hatcher

(CNN) -- The arrest of a man suspected of planning to build and detonate a "dirty bomb" in the United States has heightened concerns about the availability of radioactive materials to potential terrorists.

Fortunately, the potentially most destructive materials -- spent nuclear fuel rods -- are likely to be the best protected in the United States and the most difficult to handle, experts say.

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"If somebody was bent on using that material in a weapon, they would most likely kill themselves and their compatriots before they were ever able to use the bomb," said Stephen Schwartz, publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in Chicago, Illinois.

"The radiation would be so lethal they would get a lethal dose in minutes."

Unlike a nuclear device, a "dirty," or radiological, bomb would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive substances over a large area.

There are about 2 million licensed radioactive sources in the United States and an average of 300 reports of lost, stolen or abandoned radioactive material each year, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Beyond nuclear waste, other radioactive materials used in medicine and industry are at once less destructive and potentially more worrisome, the experts say.

Of particular concern are cobalt-60 and cesium-137, which emit gamma rays that can penetrate the body, said David Albright, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Science and International Security.

"If you disperse them in the environment, just walking by an area that's contaminated can cause a radiation risk," he said.

Cobalt-60 is an isotope often used to irradiate food and kill bacteria and in cancer radiation therapy. Cesium-137, also used to treat cancer, is widely used in industry for measuring devices and other applications.

Intense gamma rays can cause tissue damage, radiation poisoning or even death, and may lead to cancer.

By themselves, they're not a huge problem, Schwartz said, but there is the potential for abuse.

"You could have a fairly potent source if you got enough of the sources together," he said.

Plutonium and americium, which also are used commercially and in research, emit alpha particles. If inhaled, some can lead to cancer.




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