Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Dirty Bomb, Free to Good Home

Anyone out there know what a Gammator is? Well, why would you? Apparently, it’s device that was distributed widely by the US government in the ‘70s, as part of a nuclear education programme. All well and good, but the things themselves were highly radioactive. Never mind that they were sent to institutions as publicly open as universities. Some of these were sent to high schools.

Now, flip forward two or three decades. While the US spent the post-Cold War years bankrolling the cleanup of nuclear sites in the former Soviet Union, and has spent the post-9/11 years bribing and strong-arming emerging nuclear powers, there seems to have been some difficulty about cleaning up closer to home. Gammators are equipped with radioactive material suitable for use in dirty bombs. Seems a number of them now can’t be accounted for.

To give a sense of just how ludicrous this is, here’s a newgroup posting, albeit from 1999, wherein an academic offers to give one away free to anyone with the right licensing paperwork willing to haul it away. I’m no expert, but I gather the 200 curies referred to (they’re a measure of radioactivity) are quite a bit to work with.

One can only hope things have improved a little, but it’s hard to say. Take a look at this handy Los Alamos PowerPoint, reviewing a project to collect these things. It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry—it’s strictly duck and cover kind of stuff. By the looks of things, about a third of total units distributed had been recovered by the programme when this was issued in May of last year. (To view it through Google’s html conversion of the file, click here.)

The Gammator phenomenon, however comic, belongs to a broader problem. Radioactive materials within the US that fall outside the scope of actual nuclear weapons (eg, those useablein dirty bombs, rather than full-blown nukes) are far too broadly proliferated. One wonders also about a government more willing to endorse torture as an interrogation tactic than to put decent resources behind cleaning up this sort of thing.

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