Friday, July 13, 2007

The big news of this past day was the frighteningly lax licensing rules at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), under which two fake companies were able to (almost) acquire enough radioactive material for a so-called dirty bomb — technically known as a “radiological dispersion device” or RDD. But is that true? Looking at the report itself, from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), what is actually discovered is that the investigators “could have acquired [enough radioactive material] … to reach the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) definition of category 3.” (p. 3)

This is right in the middle of the IAEA scale of nuclear apocalypse*: “Category 3 sources include byproduct material, which is radioactive material generated by a nuclear reactor, and can be found in equipment that has medical, academic, and industrial applications,” to quote the GAO report. What about the dirty bomb idea? Here’s where the news media fearmongering comes in; both the Washington Post and New York Times led their stories with the mention that their NRC license “enabled them to buy enough radioactive material from U.S. suppliers to build a ‘dirty bomb,’” or “would have allowed them to buy the radioactive materials needed for a so-called dirty bomb” (respectively). The Times is actually slightly more accurate; it indeed would have, as nothing was enabled. Also appreciated is the use of “so-called” for the ridiculous descriptor of death — at least not as bureaucratically cumbersome as “radiological dispersion device,” which emotes no (reasonable) fear at all.

But it’s semantics to say more accurate in that sense, since both reports displayed an unnecessary bit of fright to their readers and, as well, the national agenda. The work of the NRC and the Energy Department is cited — from 2003 — which “identified several radioactive materials … as materials at higher risk of being used in an RDD, describing these as ‘materials of greatest concern,’” in the GAO report (p. 4). The specter of dirty bombs is mentioned in the “background” section, but there is no clear connection. What the papers accounted from this amounts, seemingly, to the fabrication of the very “fear and panic” (p. 3fn) such crude weapons would create.

*For ironic effect only.

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