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Nuclear Safeguards Education Portal
  

Radiological Sources as Weapons

Since gamma emitters are widely used in nuclear medicine and cancer treatments, they are an attractive target for theft. (Photo credit: Kona Community Hospital)
Since gamma emitters are widely used in nuclear medicine and cancer treatments, they are an attractive target for theft. (Photo credit: Kona Community Hospital) 

The most attractive radiological sources are typically gamma emitters such as Cs-137 (cesium) and Co-60 (cobalt), because they can penetrate most materials, have relatively long half-lives, and are widely available.  Their strong penetrating power removes the need for direct contact with the target, so the source can be placed at a distance.  Gamma emitters' longer half-lives allows them to emit radiation for long periods of time, so they can irradiate a target over a long time frame. Also, if dispersed they will contaminate an area for a long time, and could force the removal of soil and infrastructure.  They also have many industrial uses, so they are widely available and susceptible to theft due to their small size. Reportedly, gamma sources are the most commonly misused radioactive material.

Percentages of Misused Isotopes in Each Database*

 Misused

Other commonly misused radiological sources are alpha emitters and beta emitters.  Both of these radiations have weak penetrating ability and tend to have relatively short half-lives. Alpha and beta emitters need to be administered internally due to their inability to penetrate human skin.  However, when an alpha emitters is administered into the body, it is by far the most destructive ionizing radiation due to its high charge. The short half-lives of these emitters give them a short period to work on a target and make them hard to stockpile.   Alpha and beta sources tend to be less attractive for malicious uses, because they must be administered to the body internally and in a short time frame.

Summary of Malicious Uses*

 Malicioussumm

*From C. Streeper, M. Lombardi, and L. Cantrell, Nefarious Uses of Radioactive Materials, LA-UR-07-3686, Los Alamos National Laboratory (2007).

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