Because some people don’t seem to be clear on what one is, let’s review.
There are some materials that are radioactive. That is, they produce radioactive particles like neutrons, alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays. Those can be hazardous. However, these materials are not capable of causing a nuclear explosion.
A dirty bomb is a bomb made using conventional explosives, but the explosion merely scatters radioactive substances across a wide area. The bomb itself isn’t more dangerous than any other bomb, except that is used to scatter this radioactive material. Although the radioactivity is hazardous, the chief effect of such a bomb is to instill fear in people.
A dirty bomb is not a nuclear bomb. A nuclear bomb creates an explosion that is millions of times more powerful than a dirty bomb. The cloud of radiation from a nuclear bomb could spread thousands of square miles, whereas a dirty bomb’s radiation could be dispersed within a few blocks or miles of the explosion.
Any explosion that occurs in your area may be caused by a dirty bomb. The only way to know if a bomb has dispersed radioactive material (is “dirty”) is to have some sort of radiation monitoring device like a NucAlert or other radiation monitoring device that will alert you to the presence of the radiation.
In general, protection from radiation is afforded by:
- Minimizing the time exposed to radioactive materials;
- Maximizing the distance from the source of radiation; and
- Shielding from external exposure, and inhaling or ingesting radioactive material.
If you were in the immediate area of the explosion, do not eat, drink or smoke. If you have an N95, gas, or other respiratory protection mask, put it on. Even a bandana tied over the nose and mouth will help. Anything that will minimize your ingestion and inhalation of radioactive material is a good thing.
Get out of the immediate area of the explosion quickly. Wash yourself, your family, and any possessions down with water spray. This is called gross decontamination. Remember that runoff from this washdown is likely contaminated with radioactive materials.
The goal is to stop the radioactive material from harming you. Most radioactive products scattered by a dirty bomb are easily stopped as long as you don’t inhale or ingest them, and get them off of your skin.
The big threat from a dirty bomb is the public and government reaction to them.