Just as there are horror movies and horror novels, there’s a genre of journalism whose whole purpose is to scare the living daylights out of people. It’s all about titillation: Ebola epidemics are forever on the verge of breaking out, nuclear power plants are always on the brink of melting down, and the next Timothy McVeigh is getting ready to blow up a rental truck near my office on Capitol Hill.
I’ve done my best to ignore horror journalism, even as it thrives in the post-9/11 world, because it’s so often speculative and misleading. That’s why I approached “Dirty Bomb,” a one-hour Nova program premiering on PBS tonight, with some trepidation. (Most stations will show it at 8 pm; you can check local listings here.)
After watching it, though, I’m a bit relieved. Don’t get me wrong: A dirty bomb going off anywhere in America would be a major catastrophe. But dirty bombs also aren’t as bad as I’d been given to believe.
Here’s how they work: Radioactive particles are packed with conventional explosives. There would probably be a small number of casualties from the initial blast, followed by a larger number of people exposed to hazardous levels of radiation. A few city blocks might have to be marked off limits for years, and a wider area would have to undergo an expensive decontamination. There would also be mass hysteria, but only because not enough people will have watched this evening’s episode of Nova.
The effects of radiation on human health are poorly understood. Prolonged exposure to high levels of radiation can cause death. Lower levels of it can trigger cancer, even though the symptoms might not appear for years. Small doses of it — x-rays at the dentist’s office, for instance — aren’t harmful at all, and everyday we’re exposed to tiny amounts of it as a matter of routine. Some scientists even theorize that radiation is like alcohol: Large quantities of it are bad for you, but a little bit may actually improve your health.
A dirty bomb is an ideal weapon of terror because it would frighten more people than it would kill. People exposed to minor doses of radiation from a dirty bomb probably wouldn’t suffer from much of a health threat, though they would probably pick up a serious case of the jitters. When they hear that a radioactive dirty bomb has gone off a few miles from where they live or work, they’ll hit the panic button and rip out of town. According to Nova, it’s entirely possible that there will be more fatalities from traffic accidents following a dirty-bomb explosion than there would be from the dirty bomb itself.
Nova outlines a scenario in which terrorists explode a small dirty bomb in the Washington Metro system, exposing tens of thousands of people to abnormal levels of radiation. As the show makes clear, however, most riders don’t spend enough time in the system for them to experience sustained radiation exposure. In short, the health risks are manageable — but the psychological risks are not, because many people would quit using the Metro system entirely and tourists would stay away from the city. The economic effect would be devastating. People simply wouldn’t want to take the chance of catching cancer, no matter how many guys in white lab coats appeared on TV to tell them the risk of exposure has passed.
“Dirty Bomb” was originally supposed to debut on March 25, but Nova recently made the decision to speed the production and broadcast it this evening in place of a previously scheduled rerun on the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton.
“We thought that with recent events, people needed to know more about what dirty bombs really are,” says Diane Buxton, a publicist for the show. (If you miss the program tonight, you can still catch it on March 25, because that airing hasn’t been cancelled.)
The show certainly isn’t comforting, but it also isn’t a nerve-wracking horror show. It’s simply a serious documentary about an important threat, and it succeeds at delivering facts without hyperbole.