Murray E. Miles: Born July 11, 1931 in Long Beach, CA, Died May 11, 2019
Murray spent 25 years simultaneously within the Navy and the Atomic Energy Commission at Naval Reactors and developed the radiological controls program for the nuclear Navy. He was Director, Nuclear Technology Division for 14 of those years. His radiation protection program became the model of excellence for the nuclear industry to follow… Murray is known as the father of modern radiological protection and controls throughout the country today.
Murray E. Miles worked for Rickover. Rickover was the father of the nuclear Navy and played an essential role in evolving the nuclear power and military industry in the USA.
Radiation: It’s Good for You
Murray E. Miles
The Keese School of Continuing Education
November 6, 2006
Rutabagas are radioactive.
You can’t remove the radioactivity from bananas by washing.
Cooking your spinach will not denature its radioactivity.
Everything you eat exposes you to radiation.
The air you breathe is radioactive.
The water you drink is radioactive, even if you use bottled water.
Your home is radioactive.
The ground you walk on is radioactive.
My wife is radioactive – she likes me up. The person sitting next to you is exposing you to radiation.
The sun is a continuous hydrogen bomb spewing radiation and radioactive particles at you.
About 15,000 nuclear rays or particles pass through your body every second, it is impossible for you to avoid exposure to radiation or radioactivity.
The lowest exposures I have found are two men aboard nuclear attack submarines at sea. The seawater shields them from the sun and cosmic radiation. The steel and other construction materials have far less radioactivity than home construction materials. There is no radon gas (which comes up from the ground). The nuclear reactor is very well shielded. The submariners get much less radiation exposure at sea than their families ashore do while they’re gone.
Is radiation safe? That’s what most people want to know.
Ask if sunshine is safe. It is essential to life on earth. Yet, sunshine kills 10,000 people a year in the United States from skin cancer. Safe is a relative term. Safe means the risks seems small compared to the risks you routinely accept.
So, why is it that reporters have a hard time using the word radiation without the adjective, “deadly”?
Why do so many people avoid medical procedures involving radiation?
Why do we put up with 10,000 deaths per year in the US from food poisoning that food irradiation could prevent?
Why do we keep reading outrageous stories about vast numbers of people being killed by radiation?
Why is the terrorists radioactive bomb likely to cause unprecedented panic?
Fear of radiation has caused substantially more deaths than radiation has. Nuclear power in the US is a victim of fear of radiation. It is a logical help to reduce global warming because it does not produce carbon dioxide. If substituted for older coal plants, nuclear power would reduce the death rate from pollution by tens of thousands per year in the US. Yes, we have 103 nuclear plants producing 20% of our electricity, but France is 75% nuclear.
The word radioactive has become a pejorative. It is being used as a derogatory term. You must understand that you are already radioactive. Normal radiation exposure does not make you more radioactive. It takes neutrons to make something radioactive, but outside a nuclear reactor, neutrons are hard to get. It is not credible that you could find enough neutrons to increase your inherent radioactivity by a measurable amount.
The unit of radiation in the US regulations is the rem. There are other terms, but this is the one most used. In receiving 1 rem of gamma radiation, each gram of body tissue will absorb 100 ergs of energy. An erg is the amount of energy required to lift a tiny hungry mosquito 1 cm. In terms of energy, the rem is a small unit. A dose of 1 rem would raise body temperature only 1 millionth of 1°.
The fear of radiation seems to be tied to the characteristic that it can kill you. So, let’s see how much radiation this takes.
A dose to your whole-body of 1000 rem will most likely kill you – even with good medical support. Death is not sudden; it will take weeks. To cause sudden death, make the dose 10 times higher.
But we can handle quite well higher doses to small parts of the body. For example, 3000 rem is a typical dose used to kill a thyroid gland for cancer treatment. Doses adding up to a few thousand rem are typical to kill a tumor. There are side effects, like hair loss and nausea.
You would probably notice a dose to your whole body of 100 rem. Nausea is the problem. However, if it is spread out over one year or more, you wouldn’t notice the effects.
10 rem is a dose everyone here has. We all get about one third of a rem each year from natural background. That makes 10 rem every 30 years or so.
Let’s get away from the unnatural large unit and use the millirem instead of rem. Milli means a thousandth. 1000 mrem is 1 rem. I will try to stick to the millirem for the rest of the evening.
Cosmic radiation doses at sea level are about 30 mrem per year. Since the atmosphere shields us from cosmic radiation, the higher the elevation, the higher the dose. The dose doubles for each 1 1/4 mile increase in elevation. In Denver it is 50 mrem per year.
I get about 3 mrem flying to the West Coast. Some of the Concorde’s which flew at much higher altitude had a radiation detector to signal the need to reduce altitude to keep passengers and crew below the international radiation limits. The lack of atmosphere to shield astronauts in space and on the surface of Mars causes major concerns for explorers.
Radioactive ores in the earth and building construction materials provide around 30 mrem per year. There are places populated with tens of thousands of healthy people with 300 to 3000 mrem per year from the earth in India, Brazil and Iran.
Internal exposure from naturally radioactive potassium and other elements in our bodies as about 40 mrem per year. This comes from food, water, air and from radioactive contamination on surfaces. A small amount of this is from fallout from nuclear weapons tests.
Radon gas exuding from the ground into our homes gives another 200 mrem per year or so. This dose varies widely. It can be more than 10 times higher in the reading prong, a geological formation not far north of us in Pennsylvania.
Totals for all these average 300 mrem per year in the United States. There are some people with as low as 150, but there are lots of people in the United States over 600 mrem per year from background.
Radiation is thoroughly regulated. This may be a proper response to pervasive fear of radiation. I have found no other toxin or agent as aggressively controlled as radiation. It’s not as easy to measure as temperature or pressure or humidity, but a lot easier than measuring asbestos or mercury or cyanide.
There are two basic radiation exposure limits: one for workers and one for the public. And then there is a lot of fine print as seen in any system of regulation. Workers are allowed up to 5000 mrem per year and the rest of us are allowed to have up to 100 mrem per year – that’s ignoring background and medical exposures.
From the early days a special lower limit was picked for the public. For a long time the limit for the public was set at 1/10 the limit for workers. This safety factor has subsequently been increased to 50 times lower than for workers.
You see that 100 mrem for the public is about 1/3 of the 300 mrem background. If you’re going to make this comparison, however, you need to compare the same things – average to average. These limits effectively keep average public exposure from regulated radiation to a few millirem per year, roughly 100 times below background.
These limits evolved from early x-ray users reducing their doses after finding burns on their fingers. Then limits are set and regularly reduced as more damage was found or postulated. 50 years ago in my early work on controlling radiation, I tried to anticipate what the next reduction in limits would be. The graph of worker exposure limit versus time that I showed to Capt. Rickover extrapolated to zero in the 1960s.
That did not happen. Instead an unusual approach was established: to keep radiation exposure as low as reasonably achievable. Although operating right up to the limit is legal, you are likely to be punished for not doing much better. Toxins and hazardous substances are not controlled as well as this.
Medical radiation is generally recognized as good for us. But when the news swirls with scare stories on radiation, lots of people avoid x-rays. I doubt that this audience is particularly susceptible to this fear, so I will tell only a few stories.
The average resident in the United States gets about 60 mrem per year from medical diagnostic radiation. This excludes the extremely high doses from radiation therapy.
Chest x-rays are the most common. The dose from a competent chest x-ray is less than 10 mrem. News reporters frequently use this is unit of radiation exposure instead of using technical terms. You should recognize this as a low dose. Nobody should fear a dose so low. You should call this safe.
Almost 50 years ago I reviewed a shipyard to see if they were ready for the first overhaul and refueling of a nuclear submarine. The shipyard had given all its potential overhaul workers a radiation physical exam, including a chest x-ray. These chest x-rays were pretty much the standard in the US at that time for mass screening of people for tuberculosis. A small camera took a photograph of a large flouroscope screen because this saved money on film. The dose was 700 mrem. The total of the radiation exposures to all the workers for this medical check was considerably higher than the total exposure expected for the work in the submarine.
With the characteristic, “gentle prodding”, of Capt. Rickover, the Navy promptly changed its procedures to use full chest size film for x-rays of radiation workers. This reduced the dose to about 1/10 what it had been.
Let me translate for those of you who have heard stories about Rickover, who later was promoted to four-star admiral. The prodding he did was verbally at me since I had identified the problem. I was only a GS – 12 Navy civilian, but I had to convince the Navy Bureau of medicine and surgery to change its ways. And that crusty old bureaucracy had to spend its own money to do it.
I have worked individually with more than 100 medical doctors in improving radiologic controls. They have probably been the most difficult group I’ve had to influence. Their schools give little training on radiation. Nevertheless, the medical profession has slowly, make that painfully slowly, made major reductions in radiation exposure to patients, mostly through technological improvements.
Here are the effective doses for a few diagnostic x-ray nuclear medicine procedures. They are reported as effective doses so that their risks can be compared to the risks from whole body doses. For example, a single dental x-ray exposes the skin of your jaw to between 300 and 1300 mrem but it’s effective dose is only 1 mrem.
- Hand or foot x-ray, 1 mrem
- Mammogram, 70 mrem
- Gastrointestinal series, 1000 mrem
- Heart stress test, 1000 mrem
- Abdominal CAT scan, 1000 mrem
My own total medical exposure is about 15,000 mrem. This is the same amount I have received from background radiation in my working years. I have no problem with this risk; it is very small compared to the benefits of the medical radiation exposure. I consider these medical exposures safe.
Fear is not logical. We fear things done to us more than things we do to ourselves. We live daily with risks that kill one in 10,000 every year – automobiles. In our lifetimes we have lived with risks that killed one in a thousand every year – smoking. When the first US Surgeon General’s report on smoking came out in 1964, I did my own risk calculations and put it sign prominently on the ashtray on my desk:
Each cigarette is five minutes of your life expectancy
my visitors continued to smoke.
We have learned that the risk from radiation is cancer. Radiation has been studied more than any other agent or pollutant and we have more knowledge of radiation than any other. The statement may surprise you because news reports frequently imply that radiation is unsafe by focusing on uncertainties in our knowledge of radiation. Everything except death is uncertain. They only know the speed of light to 10 digits. Does that make it uncertain?
Damage is caused by radiation hitting parts of cells. DNA chains are broken, letters in the genetic code are changed. 1000 mrem can cause a break in the DNA of every cell in your body.
This sounds scary. Radiation damages parts of cells. One hit, by one packet of radiation, damages a piece of DNA. If that destroys a cell, no harm is done because cells die all the time. But a damaged chunk of DNA can produce different proteins, or change which gene is activated.
A cell is a factory with millions of things happening every second. Each day each cell will have 1 million damaging events causing errors. The DNA is damaged by free radicals in that normal process of oxygen metabolism. Repair process is correct most of these, so that only one persistent mutation remains in the DNA of that cell each day. Radiation causes the same kinds of problems that the cell routinely handles.
The most important tool in understanding the risk of radiation has been epidemiology. The best-known study has been going over on over 50 years for 87,000 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fortunately, the Japanese healthcare system follows citizens when they move and throughout their lives. The vast majority of those who died in 1945 fell to the effects of the blast, not radiation. In 1950 nearly everyone who was in the two cities agreed to be part of the study because it provides lifetime follow-up with medical conditions. The study is jointly run by the Japanese and Americans and has been heavily funded by the United States.
One result that continues to surprise those of us brought up on stories of Godzilla and two-headed babies concerns the children conceived by survivors after the blast. No radiation effects have been found in the 70,000 non-irradiated children of these survivors. Radiation certainly has genetic effects, but they are too small to show up in the studies. This should not be surprising to laboratory scientists who typically choose chemicals or ultraviolet light or other agents rather than radiation to cause genetic damage to fruit flies or mice. Radiation is not very effective in causing genetic damage.
The results of the study continue to show that the less than 10% of the cancer deaths of these survivors have been from radiation. Leukemia has received the most public attention is a radiation effect because it started showing up within five years. After 25 years there were no extra leukemia deaths.
Not well publicized is the result that for doses below 6000 mrem there has been no statistically significant excess of cancer deaths of the Japanese survivors.
In 60 years of study, no life shortening effect other than cancer has been found. However, there is one result of this study that is seldom talked about. The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are living longer than nonirradiated Japanese.
Extensive epidemiological studies have been done of radiation workers. The results usually show lower death rates for radiation workers than for comparable non-radiation workers at well-run places such as shipyards and commercial nuclear power plants. This really upsets the high-powered university epidemiologists. They use the term, “healthy worker effect”, to explain what they consider defects in the designs of their studies. They refuse to admit the possibility that radiation might be good for you.
Another unexpected result comes from a study of the death rates from lung cancer for each individual county in the continental United States compared to the average radon level in that county. Compensations have been made for everything the authors could think of, including most importantly age and smoking history. The results show that the higher the radiation level from radon, the lower the death rate from lung cancer.
I tried to make good engineering sense for myself out of these and hundreds of other studies which confound the internationally accepted standard scientific position that all radiation is harmful:
* The cellular machinery of life on earth developed when radiation levels were 10 times higher than they are today because radioactive elements like uranium and potassium have decayed.
* Radiation energizes the corrective mechanisms inside cells. As an example, studies with mice in extremely low background radiation have shown they don’t live as long as normally exposed mice.
* People in central Europe and elsewhere have used since ancient times, baths and caves with increased radiation to improve health.
Some physicians in Japan are using low-dose radiation to help activate the repair mechanisms and cells for advanced cancer cases. A friend of mine who was a US Navy captain extended his life by 10 years this way. His quality-of-life improved because he stopped chemotherapy. His doctor arranged periodic sequences of 10,000 to 15,000 mrem exposures.
Here are three frequently repeated statements that have contributed to billions of dollars being wasted on fixing things that have little effect on public health:
“all radiation is harmful”
“one hit from one Gamma Ray can cause fatal cancer.”
“The only safe radiation is no radiation.”
Those of us involved with radiation have to live with influential people who believe these statements.
Another feature of radioactive isotopes is our ability to measure concentrations vastly lower than for other pollutants. The limits of detection in parts per million I grew up with have changed to parts per billion for many interesting chemicals, with a few even lower. However, for radioactivity, concentrations a million times lower than these are regularly measured.
These situations mean that if you’re going to do work involving radiation, you have to work harder to stay out of trouble. Paranoia is a proper state of mind: they really are out to get you. In this case, that they, means the news media, the neighbors, the environmentalists, the unions, the regulators, and even Congress.
Let me use a few examples from my distant past.
In my 50 years working on radiation I have been investigated frequently, averaging more than once per year, by many different groups. Only once did I feel good about being investigated. That was in 1965 in a committee of the U.S. Congress explored why we were putting so much radiation shielding in submarines. We kept the shielding in spite of charges that the ships could go faster and deeper and be less costly with less of the heavy shielding material. Capt. Rickover testified that he designed the ships so that his son could serve in them.
27 years ago (1979) when four of us left Admiral Rickover and retired from the Department of Energy, we set up a nuclear engineering company. The strongest advice we received was – before you do anything else, get a lawyer. We did. We needed him. A few years later we were sued for $86 million. It did not feel good to find that some people thought I was worth 21 1/2 million dollars. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, twice. We eventually won, but this was not a minor distraction.
The United States has become a litigious society. About one third of us get cancer, and half of those affected die of cancer. When cancer strikes, lots of people look around for someone to sue. When a child is born with defects, some parents look around for someone to sue. It doesn’t take the Chernobyl disaster to cause claims for injury.
I took it personally when one Saturday morning the Boston Globe used large headlines on its front page to claim that the Portsmouth Naval shipyard was killing people with radiation. This escalated into a national crisis over radiation. Getting to the truth to counterclaims of one medical doctor and the large team of reporters took enormous effort. The results of comprehensive epidemiological studies show that radiation workers at shipyards are healthier than non-radiation workers. It goes without saying that the Boston Globe has not apologized for its erroneous charges. They sold lots of newspapers.
The national media fan the flames of this story with three other, “atomic”, causes that flare up in cycles: atomic veterans who participated in nuclear weapons tests, residents of communities around weapons test sites, and workers at Atomic Energy Commission sites involved in nuclear weapons programs. President Carter (a nuclear engineer) was forced to convene a high level interagency task force chaired by the secretary of health, education and welfare to determine what to do. The U.S. Congress had numerous hearings. It took about a year for these issues to quiet down, but they never died.
A later cycle when the national media joined various advocacy groups to stir up the radiation crisis started in the late 1990s. Secretary of energy Richardson, who is now (in 2006) governor of New Mexico, shepherded a bill through Congress to pay $100,000 or $150,000 to those with cancer who had worked in the nuclear weapons program. Payoffs in some classes of workers can be made without knowing the radiation exposures. The approach Congress seems to have enacted is to pay as many constituents as possible. In response, the Department of Labor is now working on 22,000 claims and has already paid $1.3 billion. Congress continues to capitalize on radiation fears by complaining that not enough of these payouts are being made.
There are valid claims, which I agree ought to be paid, particularly for those who had worked with nonradioactive beryllium. But I consider this is a very bad lot. It tends to reinforce the unreasoning fear of radiation, and to encourage the effort to find someone to blame for cancer.
There is one good feature to this outrageous entitlement program. Because of the excellence of the Navy’s radiological controls, the nearly 300,000 personnel in their Naval reactors program have been excluded by law from this ripoff.
3 mile Island
Early on a nice spring morning at the end of April in 1979 the new 3 mile Island nuclear plant close to Harrisburg, PA was operating at about 100% power. The plant automatically shut down because of a problem in the steam plant. The nuclear reaction ceased, but the reactor was still at a few percent power from the heat produced by decaying fusion products in the reactor core. The increasing temperature and pressure in the reactor caused the relief valve to open. Up to here, the plant was behaving as it was designed to.
Gradually, the large control room filled with more than 100 noisy alarms and flashing alarm lights. Unknown to the operators the relief valve had stuck open, and water continued to flow out of the reactor. By the time the relief valve was shut two hours later, the water had boiled off the top of the reactor uncovering the fuel. It took years to verify that half of the reactor fuel had melted.
The reactor itself and the major parts of the reactor plant are sealed inside the massive reactor containment structure. Some reactor plant systems are in other adjacent buildings. All of the nuclear fuel and most of the radioactivity remained in the reactor plant. But some radioactivity leaked to the atmosphere from these systems outside the containment structure.
A national nightmare promptly grew from fear of radiation. The president went to the plant to show it was safe. Congressional hearings started with in a few days.
No one was killed. No one has ever been killed by radiation from a nuclear power plant in the United States. The highest radiation exposure to any member of the public outside the 3 mile Island was 100 mrem, the amount received in four months of natural background. 3 mile Island remains in the minds of the nation as a disaster, reinforcing the fear of anything radioactive.
Seven years later, early on a nice spring morning at the end of April 1986 a real radiation disaster started at Chernobyl. The operators were conducting an unauthorized experiment to test how long the turbines could continue generating electricity while the reactor was shutting down. The operators were supremely overconfident in the safety of their reactor and they overrode the alarms. The control rods overheated and melted. Instead of shutting down, the reactor increased to 1000% power. A steam explosion blew the lid off the reactor. Graphite blocks broke open and caught fire.
The nuclear reaction continued for 10 days since there is no way to shut it down. The fires continued for days. Radioactive fusion products were released directly to the atmosphere because there was no containment structure. Although this was not a nuclear explosion, hundreds of times as much radioactivity was released as from the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The plant managers told the operators not to worry about the radiation when the radiation monitors went off scale. At all levels of government, the USSR denied problems and tried to keep this accident secret. Starting with publication of information on radioactive fallout by Sweden, the rest of the world knew more about this accident than did citizens of Russia.
Instead of immediately evacuating 50,000 from Pripyat, the company town where families of plant workers lived, authorities waited 40 hours to evacuate. The authorities failed to stop the drinking of milk heavily contaminated with radioactive iodine. Farming was allowed to continue as before in spite of the considerable radioactive fallout. Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine 90 miles to the South had its major May Day parade six days later while clouds of radioactivity wafted over her head. Military aircraft reported dangerous radiation at 1 million mrem per hour in these clouds over Kiev.
Two days later people stood on a bridge in a village close to the plant watching the flames of the fire. They should have been indoors, or better, evacuated. Potassium iodide to protect against radioactive iodine was available, but often not used.
Much too late, 116,000 people were evacuated commencing two weeks after the accident started. Months later another 220,000 were evacuated. At that late date they probably should have stayed where they were.
Heroic action was taken by the operators to try to stop the nuclear reaction and the fire. For example, two who went under the reactor to drain water and prevent another steam explosion died, probably from radiation. Hundreds worked on the roof shoveling off burning debris with their work times controlled by stopwatches to seconds. 1000 workers received high doses. Acute radiation sickness was diagnosed for 134, of whom 28 died within a few months. 11 more of these died later for a total of 39 radiation fatalities.
600,000 military personnel, called liquidators, recycled through the plant during recovery operations. They worked until they used up their allowed dose and then were sent home. Dosimetry was not available for half of the liquidators, and records of the radiation exposure are deplorable.
Fear of radiation was epidemic. 50,000 women had unnecessary abortions. Food and milk and animals were needlessly destroyed while people starved. Little radiologic information was provided by the authorities. Mass displacement of people because of unsound evaluations of radioactive fallout has contributed to a war – refuge mentality.
5 million people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia have been mistreated for 20 years because of Chernobyl. A fundamental error has been to treat these people as victims, and therefore they thought of themselves as victims. They waited to be taking care of. The cure is now being started by changing their name to survivors, providing good radiologic information, and empowering them to help themselves. A group of United Nations and other organizations has helped with this.
The cost of recovery operations within the former USSR has been hundreds of billions of dollars. Although the percentage has been decreasing, about 5% of the national budgets of Belarus and Ukraine are related to Chernobyl 20 years after the accident.
In addition to the USSR, radioactive fallout spread north into Scandinavia and west into the rest of Europe. Fallout was also readily detected in the United States. There were major concerns over radioactivity in Europe, however corrective actions were not to unreasonable.
Chernobyl has four reactor plants in one enormous building. The accident occurred in reactor number four. The design is a standard Russian graphite – moderated reactor used throughout the Soviet bloc. This reactor plant could not have been built in the United States because as was widely known before the accident it did not meet two major United States licensing requirements. These plants do not have containment structures to contain radioactivity in an accident. These plants also are not stable under all conditions.
The projected injuries from radiation to the public in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia have commanded incredible headlines. “Hundreds of thousands will die of cancer from this accident”, according to these irresponsible charges. The facts are far less alarming. Based on experience at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the first signs should be an increase in leukemia. Now, at 20 years, most of the extra deaths from leukemia should already have occurred. For the public, so for there have been no reliable reports of increased leukemia deaths that are statistically significant.
Drinking milk containing large amounts of radioactive iodine might have been the cause of thyroid nodules in thousands of children, the radioisotope of most concern, iodine 131, has an eight day half-life, so it had no effect after a few months. Thyroid cancers are seldom fatal if treated. Reliable reports show a total of 14 extra deaths from thyroid cancer among children affected by radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. Conversely, news media report thousands.
I have given you examples from the best and the worst in controlling radiation. The worst, Chernobyl, the Naval reactors program, allows us to operate nuclear ships vital to the defense of our country.
I have a recent good example. Nuclear workers frequently get radioactive contamination on their skin. You have seen pictures of the special clothing and the special procedures to control radioactive skin contamination. United States commercial nuclear plants typically have hundreds of workers contaminated. I have always had an itchy feeling about this. The nuclear Navy set a record last year without a single case of radioactive contamination on the skin of anyone in it ships or shipyards or bases.
Some of you have probably been uncomfortable with the dichotomy in my talk tonight, contrasting strict radiological control with the theme that radiation may be good for you. My entire career has been spent in orchestrating the best practicable control of radiation and radioactivity. In the process I have learned and so have many others, that excellence in radiological control does not cost money. It saves money. Doing it right the first time really is safer. Paying major attention to small mistakes can prevent accidents. The best stories the workers can tell in the pubs after work or about how strict the program is. The worst are Homer Simpson -like stories about sloppy practices.
Tonight, I have explained that reasonable amounts of radiation are not bad enough for your health to notice, or more likely, they actually are good for you.
The problem is that we have to live in the real world where fear of radiation causes illogical, irrational behavior. Any activities involving radiation have to recognize this fear to succeed.
Radiation encountered in our daily activities should not be the scary subject it is proclaimed to be. If you don’t understand radiation, you probably are a hazard to my health.
I have finished my talk. Customarily it is now time for questions. But let me ask you the question some of you have been worrying about. What about that radioactive bomb I mentioned at the beginning?
I picture the terrorists wrapping radioactive material around a package of explosives. Like any bomb in Israel or Baghdad this will kill people. But it will be hard for the radioactive material to add to the deaths. It is not feasible to get enough radioactivity in such a package to hurt many people for two reasons:
First, if it is going to irradiate you, then it had to be shielded for the terrorist to handle it. The best shielding is led and weighs 700 pounds for a box of 1 foot on a side.
Second, if it measures 10,000 mrem 1 foot away, then 100 feet away it will only be 1 mrem. Radiation levels decrease rapidly with distance.
You have enough information and common sense to put together a reasonable response when the terrorists strike Washington with a radioactive bomb.
The unreasonable response is what the terrorists count on. Imagine the anthrax postal disaster. Except with radioactivity to fear, it is likely to be vastly worse. Environmental activists and the news media can turn a small problem into something that feels like Chernobyl.
An exercise on a ferry from Seattle turned into a nightmare when the environmentalists prevented flushing the radioactive contamination directly into Puget Sound where it would be safe.
When you get the bomb, stay away if you can. Otherwise, think about the radioactive material the same way you think about dirt or gems and wash it off or hose it down the drain. If you feel the need for a higher technology approach, use my handy portable radioactive decontamination kit. Schools use the wet ones to hold off the spread of the flu.
Get indoors and don’t drive. Get the facts as best as you can from the news media. Liberally apply common sense in copious amounts. Cancel the unreasoned fear of radiation. Don’t tell people not to panic because that tends to cause them to panic.