Nuclear Friday: Isotopes

There was this really incredible TV show once. You probably remember it. Highest ratings ever for any live television event. The producers spent less than a million dollars and had no pre-event hype to boost viewership. It aired live on almost every channel, and was considered so compelling that a lot of stations showed nothing but reruns of the highlights and commentary on the show for almost a whole week afterward. I don’t know if this show had an official name, like most people I just call it by the date it was televised, 9/11.

Wow, that’s really callous to call 9/11 a TV show. But that’s what it was. The goal of the attack was not to kill people and destroy property. All the loss of life, all the suffering, all the courage and skill of the response, the narrative glory and horror of the survivors, the pain of those who lost loved ones; all of this was part of a grand spectacle intended to alter the course of history. And it worked. How do you make something like this not work after it is already happening?

And it kept working. For months afterwards so much programming was 9/11 related.So many shows were about all the ways we were vulnerable, all the ways we could be hurt, and all the people who wanted to hurt us.

Thanks to a homegrown crank there were the anthrax letters. They were almost no threat, but they got folks thinking about every possible threat, however unlikely. So the Discovery Channel was full of  every technical means of attack. They say sex sells, but fear sells even better. Nothing gets eyeballs on screens like fear. And of course, CNN and the Discovery Channel brought up the  possibility of radiological attacks.

And then there were the hucksters and con-artists selling us survival supplies. We call them “preppers” these days. Some of the things they sold were pretty good. Plastic sheets and duct tape are a good defense against nerve gas if you know it’s coming. Other products were more questionable. I was with “A” back at the time and a commercial came on for pills  that would protect you from radiation. Sounds like bullshit, so A asked me “Would that really work?” And as always since I am the nuke-geek that I am, I said “Yes, but that depends on a lot of conditions.”

We went to the website and looked up what was in the pills and found that they were potassium iodide, an easily absorbed salt that floods the body with iodine ions. As a “fallout boy” from long before Fall Out Boy, I was pretty sure that’s what they were. They would work very well indeed if you were exposed to iodine-131. This isotope of iodine is a major component of some kinds of nuclear fallout, and there is reason to believe that iodine-131 is a likely candidate for a radiological weapon.

Perhaps I need to take a moment to define what an isotope is. Every element has a unique atomic number based on the number of protons in its nucleus. In all elements elements except the most common form of hydrogen there are also neutrons. The chemical properties of an element are determined by its protons, neutrons don’t matter. Many elements can have different possible combinations of neutrons in their nucleus. But sometimes the balance is off, and a nucleus will emit radiation, transforming thereby into a stable form of the same element, or more commonly, a new element. Marie Curie was the first to have a clue about all this, though she had no idea atoms even had a nucleus. But she set others on the path to discovering that they did.

So, yes the pills would work if you were exposed to iodine-131. The stable iodine isotopes in the pill would flood your body. Your thyroid gland would become so full it could barely absorb any of the radioactive Iodine. Stay hydrated and you’ll piss out the bad stuff before it can hurt you.

And there is good reason to believe that iodine-131 is a good candidate for a radiological weapon. It’s manufactured all around the world and shipped everywhere, and fast too. It has a half-life of just over eight days, so it goes “stale” quickly. It is used to treat thyroid diseases.  On the other hand, radioactive iodine is a bad candidate for a radiological weapon. It’s too well understood. If an explosion dispersed radioactive iodine, those exposed could be quickly treated. Iodine salts to overload the thyroid and IV fluids to wash it out. Some of the victims might have to take thyroid pills to cope with their damaged thyroid glands. That’s it.

Sure, there are other, more dangerous radioactive materials out there used in medicine, but these are shipped with much higher security. And when you get to the really dangerous isotopes, the risk to the terrorists are greater than the risks to the target. Both the US and Germany studied radiological weapons during WWII and concluded they weren’t worth it.

But radiological weapons might still make for compelling television. And if you want to make compelling television, you have to dream big. I hope there aren’t too many amateur producers out there with big dreams.



6 thoughts on “Nuclear Friday: Isotopes

  1. The only prepper I know is…really something. We once talked about what I’d do if global disaster struck(he thinks globally, which is why a flood once surprised him). He thought I was mocking him when I said I’d go to my grandma.
    But listen: my grandma knows how to make bricks(and has made them)-so rebuilding is raken care of. She knows how to spin yarn, and knit, and has sheep-so clothes. She knows all about growing stuff, and making preserves, and cheese-so we won’t starve.
    What I find interesting about preppers is how many there seem to be. Lots of varieties: lds families(which is mormons, I think), former hippies, ex military, your average conspiracy theorist, new families detirmined to be self-reliant etc. And from what I notice(online), their numbers seem to be growing.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I think this is a really important point about the danger to the terrorists. As you know, my background in such things is not in Islamic terrorism, where suicides could be involved (this requires an entirely separate mindset from political terrorism in general). But it doesn’t matter how dedicated you are, you don’t want to fall sick and die before the act.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A low-risk amateur radiological weapon of the best design possible would likely kill eight, sicken 100, and give 300 more a good scare.

      Better weapons that could kill thousands would involve very dangerous materials that are hard to acquire and would likely kill the builders quickly. These weapons would need sophisticated technology to break up highly dangerous material into just the right size dust particles that can be inhaled but not exhaled.

      As usual, the basic science is easy. Engineering practical applications is difficult.


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