Worried Americans Buy Radiation Detectors

It looks like we're past gas masks and Cipro, and on to gamma ray detectors and potassium iodide tablets.

With nightmares of nuclear terrorism running high, a California company is cashing in on the promise of some protection in the event of an attack or accident.

The company, Homeland Protection, says it has been flooded with interest since it began advertising its Raditect radiation detector on television last week.

"With the recent increase in terrorism you and your family are at more risk than ever. The nuclear power plant near you may be the next terrorist target!" the company says on its Web site, which features links to numerous articles on the possibility of nuclear terrorism. "Defend yourself and your loved ones from the dangers of radiation."

The $149 device claims to measure gamma radiation, the potentially deadly high-energy radiation released in a nuclear explosion.

"If harmful levels of gamma radiation enter your home, Raditect will ensure you and your family are given immediate warning so you can evacuate quickly," the company promises.

"It's like a smoke detector but for radiation," said Jake Thompson, the company's chief technologist.

The device is just one of many gamma radiation detectors for sale on Internet. Some sites offer assemble-your-own kits; others sell military surplus gear.

Nuclear accidents or attacks can present other dangers, such as radioactive alpha and beta particles, but gamma radiation is particularly worrisome because it can travel significant distances and penetrate walls and other surfaces.

Would It Really Help?

Terror experts agree the Raditect could alert users to the presence of dangerous radiation, but they caution it might well offer little real benefit in most of the scenarios that experts have warned of.

The most likely of a number of unlikely atomic attacks on America would be a so-called dirty bomb, which uses conventional explosives to scatter radioactive material. But those probably present little immediate danger, said Will Happer, a physicist at Princeton University and president of the Science & Technology for Countering Terrorism project's panel on nuclear and radiological issues. Such an attack might well set off the Raditect, but the radiation would not be an immediate threat.

"It would make an awful mess but would really kill very few people," said Richard Garwin, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of Megawatts and Megatons, a recent book on nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.

Some terrorism experts believe dirty bombs are the most probable form of nuclear terrorism, because generating a genuine nuclear explosion requires significantly more technical skill and difficult-to-obtain materials.

Terror experts also point to the threat of an attack on a nuclear power facility, which could potentially scatter radiation over a large area. A home radiation detector could be useful in determining if a particular area was exposed.

"If you were down wind from it and just wanted to be sure it was safe," said Happer, "if you had one of these gadgets you could form your own judgment."

Tremendous Devastation From Even a Small Blast

The detonation of even a small nuclear weapon would cause devastation on a scale never seen in the United States. The blast from a 1-kiloton nuclear bomb set off in lower Manhattan would kill 30,000 people instantly, several studies conclude.

Another 70,000 would be almost instantly be burned to death, and another 100,000 would be killed within days by the radiation from the blast.

A radiation detection device would be of little use to anyone in the immediate area, but those further out might benefit from knowing if radioactive debris was blowing over them, experts said.

In general, however, they maintain that the public would be better off with detection devices in their local police stations and other emergency services headquarters, where experts could check the devices for malfunctions and investigate any alarms.

Fluctuations in naturally occurring background radiation can trigger false alerts, some said. And some devices can become flooded with radiation and register a false negative reading.

Raditect's makers say their device is carefully calibrated to detect abrupt fluctuations in radiation, and that it simply offers one more source of information for concerned residents.

"Think about it , if the wind is blowing, there's no way of tracking that," said Thompson. If there is a nuclear emergency, he said, "[The government] can't tell every individual what the level of radiation is in their neighborhood."

Tablets Offer Some Protection, But No Silver Bullet

If radioactive material is released from a nuclear explosion or an accident or attack on a nuclear power plant, experts often recommend potassium iodide tablets to prevent radioactive material from accumulating in the thyroid. The tablets are also sold by the Raditect's makers and others on the Internet.

The tablets are effective only if take before exposure to radioactive material, and do not protect against other radiation threats, said Kenneth Mossman, a professor of health physics and director of the Office of Radiation Safety at Arizona State University.

"Iodine is only one of the sources of radiation exposure," he said. "If you get exposed to radioactive cesium, for example, the iodine tablets aren't going to help you."

Also, some people are allergic to iodide, he said.

With an informed user, Garwin agrees certain home radiation detectors and other similar self-protection devices could provide help, but he judges most of them are probably of limited use. He urges consumers to use caution when considering any such device.

"There are some people out there saying to the public, 'Buy my thing and you'll be safe,' " he said. "And it's just not true."