Concept art for the Dirty Bomb video game, by Georgi Simeonov

What is a Dirty Bomb and How to Survive It

by James Walton

You may not know it, but two dangerous radioactive items have gone missing since March 2023.

And, in what has been seen as a great cause for alarm, they are exactly what someone would need to create a dirty bomb.

It all started in Australia, where a capsule containing radioactive material was reported as lost. Meanwhile, in Thailand, a similar incident occurred, this time with a cylinder. Worryingly, both objects housed Caesium-137, a radioactive isotope that can cause skin burns, radiation sickness, and the risk of cancer.


(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

To better understand the safety concerns involved in this story, let’s cast our minds back to the 2000s, when Islamic extremism was making waves in the news.

Back then, amid increasing concerns about terrorism, the dirty bomb became a popular boogeyman. Within the collective consciousness, they were conceptualized as a suitcase nuke, or perhaps a tactical nuke–in other words, something easily concealable albeit devastatingly damaging.

Because this threat was little more than a peripheral worry, most people never fully understood the dirty bomb as the crude radiological dispersal device that it is.

But can a crude bomb be effective?

Let’s put it this way: if detonated in the right place, at the right time–like a crowded, closed-in area–a dirty bomb could kill, burn, main, and sicken hundreds of people. Following the attack, when the news of a detonated dirty bomb hit the American airwaves, it would be branded “PANDEMONIUM,” as prominent CBRN expert Dave Jones the NBC always says.

No doubt terrorists and other enemies of freedom would love to see pandemonium in the streets of New York or London.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    So, What is a Dirty Bomb and How Does it Work?

  • 02

    Not a Nuclear Bomb

  • 03

    Threats from a Dirty Bomb

  • 04

    Preparing for the Ensuing Panic

  • 05

    Gathering Loved Ones and Getting Home

  • 06

    That Time We Thwarted a Dirty Bomb Attack and No One Cared

  • 07

    Final Thoughts

  • 08

    Frequently Asked Questions

So, What is a Dirty Bomb and How Does it Work?

Have you ever sent a surprise cake explosion to your wife or kids?

You know–those little gift boxes filled with colorful faux butterflies that are sent aflutter when you open them?

Well, a dirty bomb is a lot like the popular Send a Cake surprise in its design and function.

Think of the faux butterflies as the radioactive materials. Though the explosion is designed to detonate and do damage, its primary goal is to send these isotopes into the air all around you. Accordingly, fluttering radioactive particles can get into your lungs or on your skin and give off large amounts of radiation.

To create a conventional bomb, a dirty bomb uses traditional explosives. That bomb can be filled with whatever sick and dangerous shrapnel a terrorist or enemy of the state dreams up. Along with dispersing the radioactive material, the explosion will also cause physical harm to the people close by.

To survive the initial blast, and potential shrapnel, you need to have a quality IFAK (individual first aid kit) that you carry on your person or in a backpack. In essence, the IFAK is a small kit that is designed to keep you from dying after trauma. It can also, of course, be used to keep other people from dying, too.


(Image courtesy of

A basic IFAK contains medical equipment like tourniquets to constrict limbs, which stops the flow of blood and, in turn, keeps wounded people from bleeding out. In this regard, clotting agents and pressure bandages are also great tools, as they will help you survive the initial trauma of a dirty bomb.

Note that to make the bomb “dirty,” it must also contain radioactive material like, say, Caesium-137. As a rule of thumb: the finer the radioactive material, the better the dispersal. Imagine having one capsule of a radioactive isotope in an explosion. Sure, it might crack or break up a bit upon exploding but what would be much better–and what makes a dirty bomb most effective–is the use of finer shavings or even pulverized radioactive materials.

Ultimately, the goal is to shock, hurt, and terrorize people with the explosion, as well as contaminate anyone or anything around the area with the widest possible range of dispersal. Therefore, another important step to surviving an attack like this is to always note your exits, and have an exit strategy when you are inside a building or in a crowd.

Not a Nuclear Bomb

A nuclear explosion, like a nuclear bomb, uses a fission reaction to create the massive kinetic blast and subsequent fireball that devastates the immediate area. That means that if you are standing in the blast radius of a nuclear bomb, there is not a bug-out bag or EDC setup on earth that is going to help you.

A dirty bomb, on the other hand, is eminently survivable even if you are in close range. Granted, this will depend on the isotope that is dispersed, as well as the damage you sustain from the initial blast. With that said, getting away from the site of the explosion and nursing your wounds will almost certainly guarantee your survival.

Threats from a Dirty Bomb

For a succinct definition of a dirty bomb, we can consult The Nuclear Radiation Commission (NRC), which states:

A "dirty bomb" is a type of "radiological dispersal device" that combines a conventional explosive, such as dynamite, with radioactive material. The terms dirty bomb and RDD are often used interchangeably.

Threats from a Dirty Bomb

Do you know how to apply a tourniquet? How long can you leave one on?

The answer to the latter is two hours. As for the former, you’ll need to know how to use your gear if you are going to deal with the aftereffects of a bomb. Note that you might not be putting the tourniquet on yourself, but someone else–quite the nerve racking prospect.

In brief, the greatest threat from a dirty bomb will be the initial blast.

Contamination from the dispersal of radioactive materials is what comes next. Remember: none of your senses are capable of detecting radiation, so you may not even realize it is a dirty bomb.

That means that, following an explosion, it is imperative to have a means of detecting radiation. After all, if you stay in a contaminated area rendering aid to others, you could lose your life. And trust us–the urge to help people will be strong, if not irresistible, amid all that suffering.

To make a sound decision, then, you’ll need to consult our Geiger-2 dosimeter. Just a little larger than a pen, it’s so easy that even a child can use it.

MIRA Safety Geiger II dosimeter


Bear in mind that, when called upon to use it, your surroundings will be loud, chaotic, and messy. As such, your adrenaline will be pumping, and you will be shaking and scared. A quick and effortless reading, therefore, is crucial.

Plus, a positive reading from the Geiger-2 is invaluable information for first responders. This means that, even if it is not safe to render aid to fellow victims, you will be able to do something to help the situation.

Preparing for the Ensuing Panic

In the aftermath of a crisis, the public becomes gripped by fear, and panic reigns.

Scenes like this can be found in all the post-apocalyptic films–and no wonder. Chaos, after all, can be quite cinematic.

Unfortunately, it is dangerous too, since in the wake of a crisis, a person’s hierarchy of needs recalibrates in accordance with what is necessary for one’s immediate survival.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (Image courtesy of Psychology Today)

As such, expect the usual suspects of any large-scale disaster: widespread panic, evacuation, violence, and looting. And plan accordingly.

Here at MIRA Safety, we offer the best gas masks on the planet. Granted, you will not be able to don your mask fast enough to avoid initial contamination from a blast–unless you wear it all the time, Bane-style. With that said, a quality respirator like the CM-6M is still well-worth keeping on hand, as it will protect your lungs and face from contamination in the aftermath of a dirty bomb attack.

Trusted by police and government agencies all over the world, the CM-6M is designed to tackle residual radiation with ease. From Chile to Norway to Kuwait, this product has been tested in the most trying circumstances known to man, making it reliable protection.

Note that it’s advisable to wear a hood and keep a low profile after putting your respirator on. After all, being the only person on the street with a gas mask during a radiological attack is going to put a reticle on your back. (That’s figurative, but could very well be literal!)

It is equally prudent to consider additional shielding as you move away from the scene. That way, if another explosion goes off down the street, there will be an extra layer of protection between you and the radioactive isotopes. Remember: radiation is the danger we cannot sense, but there is a recourse–shielding.

A portable solution, MIRA Safety’s M4 CBRN Military Poncho can be folded up into a compact 23 ounce package–a selling point that most competitors lack. And just like the CM-6M, its international reputation is well-earned. Trusted by the Serbian special forces for CBRN protection, it safeguards the wearer from gas, aerosol, and liquid contaminants.

To avoid drawing attention to yourself, consider buying the M4 CBRN Poncho in black or navy. After all, a camo-pattern-poncho-with-gas-mask ensemble will make you look like you just dropped into a Rebirth Map in Modern Warfare 2. And once again: we do not want to become a target.

Gathering Loved Ones and Getting Home

Unless you are a lone wolf in this life, the odds are good that there are people you would want to reach in the wake of a dirty bomb attack. This may prove difficult, however, as networks will likely be choked from the panic of others texting and calling. To combat this, you will need a meetup location or a plan to assure everyone can come back together.

Note that a plan like this must come with contingencies. The simple directive “EVERYONE MEET AT HOME” might not be possible to fulfill, after all, if bridges are closed or buildings are locked down.

As such, you’ve gotta sit the family down with a map to plot out where each member spends their days, and the routes that they take home. Pick out waypoints, halfway points, or meetup points, or all of the above. That way, if everyone winds up at home except Mom, then you’ll at least have an idea of several places to check, as well as a route that she might be traveling on foot.

Since there are unlimited variables, this step may seem daunting. With that said, it is always preferable to plan to reunite at home–your survival HQ–than find yourself sitting in traffic, hoping a call goes through.

That Time We Thwarted a Dirty Bomb Attack and No One Cared

On May 8th, 2002, you probably had a number of things on your mind–the least of which would have been the threat of a dirty bomb attack from a fellow US citizen.

And yet, according to the government, that danger was very real.

Enter José Padilla. Born in Brooklyn, the New Yorker-cum-Chicagoan became a street gang member before being thrown in jail for a number of charges, including manslaughter.

José Padilla

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In the American prison system, he sought peace and reformation through Islam, consequently changing his name to Abdullah al-Muhajir.

Somewhere along that journey, however, he took a dark path and decided that the best way to serve Mohammad would be to move to the Middle East and learn to build dirty bombs. This entailed training in militant camps run by extremist groups in Pakistan and later Afghanistan.

His time spent abroad would be crucial in the government’s case against him. Ultimately, after years of a controversial military detainment, he was convicted on charges related to conspiracy and support for terrorist organizations.

The specific details and evidence of the dirty bomb plot, it should be noted, were never presented or tested in court, and are therefore hazy. Nevertheless, the story remains a sobering–albeit often forgotten–reminder of the ongoing danger that terrorism has posed to American citizens since 9-11, with plots being thwarted behind the scenes every day.

Final Thoughts

In this article, we have taken up the question: “What is a dirty bomb?”

While there are many misconceptions to dispel, we hope that, at minimum, you feel a bit more informed about the topic–and, moreover, prepared to deal with a potential blast. This starts with the right gear.

In this regard, we cannot overstate the importance of radiation detection in preparing for a dirty bomb. Remember: there is virtually no way for you to discern between a pressure cooker bomb, like the one from the Boston Marathon bombing, and a dirty bomb, because your senses are not designed to detect radiation. Purchasing a Geiger counter or pocket dosimeter, like the Geiger-2, is therefore imperative.

Once you’ve seen to this, be sure that you have a comprehensive plan to get your family to safety.

In the thick of it, you may find yourself wondering: Will it be one dirty bomb, or are we dealing with a collection of them strategically placed throughout your city? Our advice is to get back to home base, rather than sticking around to find out.

But without a plan, that could be almost impossible.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a dirty bomb?
Has a dirty bomb ever been used?
What is the difference between a nuclear bomb and a dirty bomb?
How effective are dirty bombs?
How far can a dirty bomb reach?