The radioactive materials used in power generation, industry, medicine, and research are easier for terrorists to obtain than the weapons-grade uranium or plutonium necessary for nuclear bombs. Even without the technology and expertise to create, deliver, and detonate a nuclear bomb, terrorists could still cause fear and disruption by dispersing radioactive materials in a number of ways.
Although introducing radioactive material into food or water supplies might produce fear and panic, the extent of contamination and danger would be relatively limited. A more likely method is a radiological dispersion device (RDD), or “dirty bomb,” using conventional explosives to spread radioactive material into the surrounding area.
As with any explosion, an RDD could cause serious injuries and damage. Contamination from an RDD event could affect a wide area, thus, radiation from an RDD will likely take longer to dissipate due to a potentially larger localized concentration of radioactive material. The extent of the danger would depend on the size and design of the bomb, the amount and type of radioactive material, and weather conditions. The dust spread from the explosion could be dangerous to inhale or eat—a large enough dose would increase the risk of developing cancer later in life.