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Ed Yeates reportingUtah researchers are rapidly working under the country's Project Bioshield to develop an antidote for dirty bombs. Both radiobiologists and physicists say detonation of either a dirty bomb or a small nuclear weapon in the heart of a U.S. city is a very real threat.
Right now it would not be difficult for a terrorist to collect a bucketful of radioactive garbage and fire off a dirty bomb on the main street of any city.
University of Utah radiobiologist Dr. Scott Miller said, "They could use just a simple stick of dynamite. They could use a bunch of gunpowder, anything that could explode. They could make a dirty bomb out of it."
Under Project Bioshield, Dr. Miller and his colleagues are currently working on a fast-track to come up with a pill people could swallow following exposure to a dirty bomb. The lab is currently the only one working on a newly formulated oral chelation compound that would chase radioactive metals through the body then capture and eliminate them.
"We are designing this to be a safe and effective antidote that could be given to large populations without harm," Dr. Miller said.
Ironically, a low-yield nuclear reactor at the University is helping with the research. It bombards samples taken from Russian plutonium workers to find out how the material behaves in the body, like accumulation found in bones.
Dr. Miller said, "I think the threat is real, and I think with the proliferation of nuclear materials, the availability of nuclear weapons around the world is frightening."
On the other side of the valley, retired physicist Jack Parker agrees. He spent 30 years at Los Alamos National Lab working on nuclear safeguards. He's concerned about passive devices currently in use that could fail to detect bomb-making materials hidden aboard trucks and other vehicles.
Dr. Jack Parker, a retired physicist with the Los Alamos National Lab, said, "If you put enough lead around these things, then the gamma rays will be reduced to the point the gamma ray detectors will not see anything above background."
Put water and polyethylene around the material, Parker says, and you won't even detect neutrons. "These devices simply are defeated. They're not just challenged - they are defeated."
And terrorists already know this! Better, more expensive detectors, supplemented with x-ray, can see through the camouflage, but Parker says the Government prefers cheaper, passive devices -- devices that sound false alarms even from things like Miracle Gro fertilizer.
Beyond just a dirty bomb, Parker says a terrorist could build a hand-carried nuclear gun that would shoot a plug on one end into a small ball of uranium on the other.
"And gives you perhaps a five to 10,000 ton of TNT equivalent explosion," Parker said.
The former Los Alamos physicist has sent letters expressing his concern to both House and Senate committees and Utah's congressional delegation. Other scientists are supporting Parker, saying we need more of a sense of urgency in this country to seek out and find things that make bombs before they become bombs.