The Real Deal With Cesium

08/02/2010 05:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Rizwan Ladha PhD candidate, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

The month of July has been a big one for the chemical element Cesium. Produced naturally through the nuclear fuel cycle and used in a variety of applications from agriculture to cancer treatment, it is highly radioactive in isotopic form Cs-137.

The idea has been floated for a long time of using cesium in a radioactive "dirty bomb," which wouldn't have the same explosive power as a uranium or plutonium nuclear bomb but would contaminate land, water supplies and living organisms, including people. In March 2002, Henry Kelly, President of the Federation of American Scientists, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the possibility of constructing dirty bombs using three different radioactive elements -- cesium, cobalt and americium. He demonstrated that if a cesium-137 bomb were exploded using 10 pounds of TNT at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the resulting contamination might look something like this:

Where the innermost ring represents one cancer death per 100 people due to remaining radiation, the middle ring represents one cancer death per 1,000 people, and the outer ring represents one cancer death per 10,000 people. Moreover, the EPA would recommend decontamination or destruction of the entire area within the outermost ring.

So since cesium can be stolen from a hospital and thus can be more easily acquired than, say, uranium or plutonium, it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine a terrorist group acquiring enough cesium to construct a barrage of low-explosive, highly radioactive bombs and blanketing a major city with them.

It's a good thing people are paying attention to this terrifying possibility: during the month of July alone, cesium and its relatives have gotten some great coverage, though not in the mainstream media. The Global Security Newswire reported on July 6 that federal and New York state authorities, together with people from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), collaborated on removing a small amount of cesium-137 from St. Vincent's Hospital in Manhattan. Two weeks later, on July 22, the same media outlet reported that a lead-lined safe containing radioactive "seeds" used in cancer treatment had gone missing from a hospital in Illinois.

But here's the scariest incident of attempted or actual cesium theft or disappearance: on July 10, five men were arrested in Pretoria, South Africa, for attempting to sell a cesium device for $6 million dollars to undercover agents posing as potential black-market buyers. Rachel Maddow on MSNBC did a good job of covering the matter in her show on July 19. You can watch the six-minute clip here.

If anyone comes across more incidents of cesium theft or disappearance, anywhere in the world and no matter how spurious the report, please let me know.