By Peter Duveen

PETER'S NEW YORK, December 30, 2007: The creation of a so-called "dirty bomb," one which would spread dangerous radioactive material over an area but do little physical damage, was considered around the time the atomic bomb was in its first stages of development.

The source material for such a bomb would be the
byproducts of a radioactive pile in which the fission of uranium nuclei occurs under controlled circumstances. These byproducts would themselves consist of various highly radioactive elements formed from the fission of the nuclei of the element uranium.

The possibility and feasibility of such a bomb was first proposed only a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, by Eugene Wigner and Henry Smyth, both physicists who played a prominent role in the development of the A-bomb.

Because the radioactive fission products differed chemically from uranium, the plan would have been to extract these and "use them like a particularly vicious form of poison gas," according to a report issued after the war had ended.  The report indicated that the fission products produced from only one day of a nuclear reactor's operation "might be sufficient to make a large area uninhabitable."

Apparently the United States government considered but chose not to pursue this avenue of weapons development. It did, however, create some safeguards in the event the Germans decided to use such a weapon against America and its European allies.

These days dirty bombs are often mentioned in the press in connection with supposed terrorist plots to bomb various destinations. Much of this sort of thing is really no more than the fertile imagination of the CIA, FBI or other government agencies. No dirty bomb has ever been found, and the construction of such a bomb would be as insurmountably difficult as the construction of a complete A-bomb. Both, in the end, require access to nuclear fission products. Fission itself can only be triggered using technology so expensive and elaborate that only major corporations and governments have access to it. It is not likely that terrorists of the type portrayed by intelligence agencies would ever be able to get their hands on such materials, if indeed they wanted to use it for destructive purposes. Conventional explosives are far more easily accessible, and can be used to much effect, as they already have been, probably more often by intelligence agencies posing as terrorists than by two-bit "terrorists" themselves.