Mitt Romney does not understand how one creates a "dirty bomb"

Mother Jones today published a second part of the video secretly recorded at a Mitt Romney fundraiser in Boca Raton. The first bombshell will forever be known as "47 percent," but the portion getting attention today focuses on a response the Republican presidential candidate gave to a question about the Israel/Palestine peace process. The tl;dr there: he doesn't believe it'll happen, and intends to "kick the ball down the road" and let the next administration deal with it, or something like that.

But here's a derpworthy moment in the video that may be of interest to science fans, and people who have actually done some reporting on how so-called "dirty bombs" work.

Here's a transcript for the relevant portion of the video:

If I were Iran, if I were Iran—a crazed fanatic, I'd say let's get a little fissile material to Hezbollah, have them carry it to Chicago or some other place, and then if anything goes wrong, or America starts acting up, we'll just say, "Guess what? Unless you stand down, why, we're going to let off a dirty bomb." I mean this is where we have—where America could be held up and blackmailed by Iran, by the mullahs, by crazy people. So we really don't have any option but to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon.

But you don't need "fissile material" to create a dirty bomb. David Corn at Mother Jones writes:

Romney didn't appear to understand that a dirty bomb—an explosive device that spreads radioactive substances—does not require fissile material from a nuclear weapons program. Such a bomb can be produced with, say, radioactive medical waste. If Iran's nuclear program poses a threat, it is not because this project will yield a dirty bomb.

Someone on Romney's staff should sit the guy down and force him to watch this PBS NewsHour story by Miles O'Brien from last year, a straightforward explainer on how dirty bombs work, and how it's not necessary to have a "nuclear program" in place to create one.


  1. It sounds to me like Romney doesn’t really grasp that “fissile” and “radioactive” aren’t synonymous.

      1. Radioactive dust isn’t particularly ‘bright’ or ‘beautiful’. Fission on the other hand….

      1. All isotopes are radioactive to some degree, so no. Also, all materials are fissile, if you have the neutron flux, no?

        1. No.  You can fission anything with enough effort, but it’s endothermic (energy absorbing) if it’s a lighter element.

          Fissile relates to self-sustaining chain reactions.  Only a very limited set of isotopes can sustain neutron fission reactions with the reactions’ own output neutrons.

          Other elements can fission with high enough energy neutrons (U-238, for example) but won’t sustain a chain reaction.  Wrapping a nuclear bomb in U-238 adds energy but it does so by taking otherwise escaping neutrons and using them.  The neutrons are – on the average – consumed and not re-released in the process.

          Fissioning lighter elements requires neutrons of higher energies than you (statistically) see from fission reactions or even fusion reactions.  You can make neutrons with higher energy with accelerators but not with normal fission or fusion.

    1.  We’re all assuming that Romney and politicians in general want to understand “the truth” and represent that in their campaigns. Of course, that’s not anywhere close to true for either side. What they really want is to say the things that keep the money rolling in, and you bet they have a massive data-mining and -crunching setup somewhere that they hope tells them what to say to whom.

      The problem is that their segmented messages are easily disseminated via the internet (big content found the same thing with region encoding). What’s gospel to a bunch of rich capitalists of course sounds like epic douchebaggery to the rest of us. What’s gospel to us sounds like pablum to the rich capitalists.

      What Romney believes and what accurately reflects reality are really, really irrelevant at election time. Maybe he does believe this stuff, which makes him dangerous and kind of crazy, but either way, this is a calculated speech.

    1. How did that one end? I had free passes to see it, but the girl who went with me wanted to leave about 30 minutes from the end. Did Mitt swoop in to save the day? Did Clooney decide it was better to kick the problem down the road for Channing Tatum to deal with it 20 years later?

        1. Huh, I thought it was the opposite – they removed an explosive piece from the bomb, preventing it from going critical and thus turning it into a dirty bomb.  Which went off.  In a church.

        2. Yeah, bit of handwaving about “the church’s thick walls contained the undetonated plutonium” at the end, but if I were Third Batman I’d resign myself to semi-annual cancer scans for a long, long time.

      1. “the girl who went with me wanted to leave about 30 minutes from the end”

        Aww yeah.


  2. I wonder if Mr. Romney would be in favor of tightening environmental and industrial safety regulations to keep the numerous and common radioactive sources used in medicine, industry, and mining out of the hands of terrorists and similar Evildoers?

  3. America has Its fair share of crazy people. Some of which work in Washington.

    I’ve always wondered why us non Americans tolerate the US having a nuclear program. To be completely honest I don’t trust them much more than anyone else with that kind of power.

    1. Crazy Iran is basically completely encircled by U.S. military installments, and countries without these capabilities have a bad habit of losing their autonomy.  Somebody should ask Mitt how many countries crazy Iran has been dropping bombs on and taking military action in vs. sane U.S.

    1.  I think the idea that Obama sincerely believed there were 57 states (i.e. didn’t simply misspeak) is much less plausible than the idea that Romney doesn’t know what a dirty bomb is (or that they’re essentially not any more dangerous than a regular bomb).

    2. Even Obama’s critics don’t seriously believe he really thought there were 57 states. Certainly no one thinks such a belief is helping to shape his views on policy. 

      By contrast, Romney’s statement relates directly to his views on if and how we should deal with Iran. It’s not just a misstatement, it’s clearly something he spent some time seriously pondering.

    3. quick quiz!

      1. how many Democratic primaries and caucuses were there in 2008?
      A: 57 (counting all states + DC + territories + TX which has a primary and a caucus)

      Obama’s mistake was saying “states” when he was obviously talking about the individual contests he had to compete in to win the 2008 primary.

      1. That’s useful, I didn’t know about the Texas caucus. Only 4 territories (Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa and the US Virgin Islands) held primaries, but if you add the Texas caucus, DC, and the Democrats Abroad primary then you do get to 57.

  4. I’m with Michael Barton on this one.  Time spent on this could be better spent on the 47% remarks–which are completely and absolutely damning.

    1. His ignorance is just par for the course, but it’s the sabre rattling and “crazy Iran” talk that’s more concerning, but sadly not surprising…

    2. It depends on whether you think he’d be a worse president because he doesn’t care about the working class, or if he’d be a worse president because he’d bomb Iran and bring us into another world war.

      Guess it’s six of one, half dozen of the other, really.

  5. To clarify: Since terrorists do not need fissile material to build a dirty bomb, one must then logically conclude that a nuclear Iran could not possibly pose an additional threat of dirty bomb attacks against the U.S.  Romney’s desire to keep Iran nuke-free is thus completely unfounded and a symbol of his profound ignorance.

    1.  Well, that doesn’t actually follow.  The fact that nuclear programs aren’t needed to make dirty bombs doesn’t imply there’s no reason to try to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear program.

      I’m not taking a position on the latter, just pointing out that one failed argument doesn’t negate the point it was being used to argue for.

        1. Actually, you’re probably not on my side.  Sarcasm wasn’t obvious, and the intent of my comment was more to keep my side honest than support yours.

      1.  Could mostly non-fissile material be used to create a dirty bomb? Yup. Would fissile material create a more powerful dirty-bomb than non-fissile material? Yup (I am not a nuclear scientist however).

        I think this is just a poorly-worded example mean to illustrate a point, which his audience would have gotten easily, not a huge blunder imo (and I’m rooting for the other guy).

        1. Actually no, fissile material used in nuclear weapons creates a much weaker dirty bomb for the same amount of radioactive materials used.

          The highly enriched radioactive material used in nuclear weapons and power plants actually release radiation very slowly, thus making for a poor dirty bomb.  The way nuclear weapons work is to set off a chain reaction resulting in large explosions, the radiation is a side effect.

          However, other easier to obtain and require much less quantity radioactive material such as cesium makes for very good dirty bomb.

          Giving you a comparison.  Cesium only require less than 50 or so grams to contaminate a major city.  Enriched uranium would require somewhere just under 1500 tons to achieve the same effect.

          So please do not say yup when you don’t know the answer no matter how intuitive it must feel.  You don’t need to be a nuclear scientist to look up something you are not certain about.

          1.  Point taken, although I’m a pretty good Googler I don’t know enough about this kind of stuff to really make a good start unless I happen across someone who’s already done the work

  6. Just because a dirty bomb doesn’t require fissile material to make, doesn’t preclude it being used to make one. The scenario outlined in the video is entirely plausible. Whatever side of the political aisle you are on, it should seem obvious that a nuclear Iran isn’t in our best interest for a multitude of reasons.

    1. “Nuclear Iran”, quite the catchy denotation.
      I propose “Atomic States of America” as an addition.

  7. FEAR!!! VOTE FOR ME! 

  8. If the ideal dispersion is of a liquid, then you could just dissolve any of these radioactive metals in a strong acid and spray it from a fire truck or police water cannon, like one used by the facist police at an anti-nuclear rally, for maximum ironic effect. No bomb required.  Yeah, we’re screwed.

        1. That is a new way to turn lemons into lemonade.  Who would have thought radioactive water as a result of a massive earthquake could be useful?

  9. “If I were Iran, if I were Iran—a crazed fanatic”

    I didn’t know Iran per se was a crazed fanatic. I also didn’t know a single person could be Iran?

  10. After recently re-reading John McPhee’s ancient CURVE OF BINDING ENERGY, which focuses (among other things) on weak security of radioactive materials in USA, I devised a simple attack. Inhaling 1 microgram of powdered plutonium can cause death. So, put about an ounce (~28g) into a thin-skin balloon. Carefully inflate the balloon with helium. Stand on the beach at Santa Monica CA with an off-shore wind. Release the balloon. Somewhere high over Metro Los Angeles, it will burst, releasing the plutonium, potentially causing millions of deaths between West Hollywood and San Bernardino. A prudent attacker might attach a small radio-triggered blasting cap to the balloon, if they want optimal placement of the release, but that’s probably not really necessary.

    Pretty simple and elegant, right? So why hasn’t it been done yet? As mentioned, dirty bombs can be made with non-fissile hot wastes. Why hasn’t this been done yet? Such attacks have been possible for many decades now. Why haven’t they happened? Are these just nightmare bogeymen that will never appear in reality?

    1. I’m sure the FBI will be around shortly to discuss the matter with you.

      But, in the meantime, consider the volume of air that you’re dispersing your 28 grams into. A 10 km cube of air is a trillion cubic metres, a pair of lungs about 1/200th of a cubic metre. Even if you could confine your material to a limited volume and not have it dispersed by the wind over the whole Earth, your concentration is out by several orders of magnitude. Not to mention that you have to prepare your plutonium in such a way that it will be dispersed over the area and not just fall in easily detected clumps.

      If it was as simple as your scheme, the open air nuclear tests, TMI, Chernobyl, and Fukushima would have killed us all already.

    2. Because when terrorists make an attack they want to make a point.

      Of course however, your idea is very good for random massacre.  Where do you live?  Near a beach with offshore wind hopefully?

      Problem is the blasting cap is entirely necessary since the way winds work will often work against you once it reach a certain altitude.  So the idea is it is essential to be able to determine when the balloon pops before the higher altitude wind change the direction of the spread of materials.  In fact I would say in your model 28g might be too little, plus balloon might actually bad idea unless you have some sort of remote release, unless you want to risk killing yourself or getting caught.  Of course if suicide was part of the equation that makes it valid.

      Ok, enough crimecraft, back to reality.

  11. someday I might learn the commands to do stuff for quotes and things…

    “I mean this is where we have—where America could be held up and blackmailed by Iran, by the mullahs, by crazy people.”

    I think I’ve hit on the biggest reason he is the way he is, and many other “fundamentalists” are…
    They decry Sharia Law happening here in the US, they worry about America being blackmailed by crazy people…
    Because thats what THEY want to do.
    They are pissed that some other religion might beat them to the punch on this.
    They want their religious laws on the books, and not have to compete with others.

  12. You dont even need an explosive,  Some of these materials thrown into a bonfire would irradiate the down wind area.   That’s one of the ways the Chernobyl disaster contaminated the country side. One of the vectors out of Fukushima was the contaminated smoke and steam from the hot reactor components.    

  13. Keep in mind, even if you were able to get that plutonium and live long enough to put it in your balloon, reducing it into a fine powder may not be within the capabilities of your explosives.

  14.  Romney doesn’t have to be accurate, he just has to be relevant to the kinds of people who might vote for him. The race is nearly a dead heat, so he’s courting perhaps a few thousand voters who won’t fact check his assessment of how a dirty bomb works or not. Aside from that, it’s a comment that won’t hit the mainstream news sites; another layer of “it doesn’t matter how accurate he was”; his voters won’t notice, nor would they care if they did.

  15. Mark McKinnon, Republican strategist and Bush campaign aide, wrote the following today:I loved Michelle Obama’s line in her speech: ‘A presidency reveals who you are.’ So do campaigns. And mark me down as one Republican not happy with what is being revealed about Mitt Romney.

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