One thing I am always especially bothered by is when a big deal is made out of a trumped-up claim that the government has thwarted a major terror plot, that is, in fact, either nothing of the sort, or not a real danger. These news stories come up constantly and seem to reenforce the idea that we need to give more power and money to the various agencies involved. They tell us both that we need to fear the danger of evil plots and credit the authorities for their diligent work in keeping us safe.
A recent example is the supposed “X-Ray Weapon” that has supposedly been stopped. While the individuals involved may well have been attempting to build a deadly device, their hair-brained scheme was not likely to be an acute danger to anyone.
2 Men Charged in Bid to Make Deadly X-Ray Weapon
In April 2012, the authorities said, an industrial mechanic walked into a synagogue in Albany and announced his intention to build a weapon that could help Israel kill its enemies while they slept. He wanted to know if anybody would provide financial backing. Turned away, prosecutors said, he sought money from another source: a leader in the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina.
Both the synagogue and the white supremacist group told the authorities about the man, Glendon Scott Crawford, who, until his arrest this week, devoted himself to building a weapon of the sort he had promised, the authorities said. The weapon was an X-ray-emitting device that could be activated by remote control, which he intended to use to kill Muslims, according to a criminal complaint unsealed in Federal District Court in Albany.
Mr. Crawford, who the authorities say works for General Electric in Schenectady and lives in Galway, N.Y., believed the device would enable him to secretly poison people with lethal doses of radiation from a safe distance, the authorities said. On Wednesday, federal prosecutors charged Mr. Crawford, 49, and an engineer, Eric J. Feight, 54, of Hudson, N.Y., whom the authorities described as a co-conspirator who works in industrial automation, with conspiring to provide support for the building of a weapon of mass destruction. The authorities say Mr. Crawford relied on Mr. Feight to design the weapon.
Mr. Crawford, the authorities said, conceived of a powerful X-ray device that could be placed in a truck and driven near a target. The driver would park, leave the area and activate the device, “killing human targets silently and from a distance with lethal doses of radiation,” the complaint against the men stated.
To add to the hysteria, other news stories have said the men planned to use the device to target President Barack Obama or that they were members of the Tea Party (a political movement which has been labeled as everything from racist to terrorist.)
There is a lot of questionable information in the reports. For one thing, if they were actual KKK members, one wonders why they would be seeking support from Jews or looking to target the “Enemies of Israel,” since the Ku Klux Klan hates Jews. They also reportedly lived in upstate New York, an area which does not have any active chapters of the Klan. They may just have been garden variety racists who sympathized with hate groups.
That said, this weapon they were designing is so unworkable that it never posed a threat to anyone. The biggest danger these men likely presented is that they would attempt to build their x-ray gun, realize that they had failed and eventually turn to something more conventional, like improvised explosive devices, arson or going on a shooting spree.
There are a number of reasons why this device would never work. The first is the sheer size and obvious nature of any such mobile system. X-ray machines work by using high voltage electricity to create an electron beam that strikes a tungsten target in an x-ray tube. There are portable x-ray machines and relatively small units can be found in dentists offices. Such a small x-ray machine could be attached to a vehicle and run off the twelve volt power system, with an inverter, but these kinds of x-ray machines produce low levels of radiation and would require a very long period of exposure to do any harm. Additionally, their x-ray tubes are only designed for brief bursts of use and would burn out if run for more than a few seconds at most.
What would be required would be a very large x-ray machine, similar to the largest hospital units or the type used in industrial radiography. These machines require a lot of electricity, far more than could be delivered by the power system of a car or truck. Instead, the x-ray system would need to have a dedicated generator, capable of providing multiple kilowatts of power. The machine itself consists of a large, heavy transformer and an x-ray head, containing the tube. X-ray machines that are intended to operate continuously for a long period of time need to have big x-ray tubes that can dissipate heat and many require a water cooling system.
Here is a crude rendering I made of what such a truck-mounted x-ray system might look like:
The end device would hardly be inconspicuous. It might consist of a flatbed truck with a large diesel or gasoline generator, a big high voltage power supply, a water tank and cooling pump and an x-ray head mounted on some kind of arm or pole. Perhaps much of it could be hidden in a van or enclosure, but this is not something you could sneak up to someone with.
Size, however, is really not what would kill the concept as much as the time necessary to expose someone to a dangerous level of radiation. Standing in close proximity to even a powerful medical x-ray source for several seconds would not produce enough radiation exposure to be concerned about. A very powerful x-ray machine might be able to induce mild radiation poisoning in a period of a couple of minutes, but again, the subject must be cooperative enough to stay within the x-ray beam.
Perhaps these limitations could be overcome if the device could be used at a distance from the subject. For example, a person might not notice the big truck with an x-ray machine parked outside their home at 3 AM and beaming x-rays into their bedroom window. This, however, is not possible. As with most directed energy weapon concepts, the inverse square law is what ultimately kills the idea of a lethal x-ray gun.
X-rays cannot be focused by any practical means. When x-ray photons are generated in the tube, they go off in every direction. It’s possible to use a collimator to provide some beam shaping, but the collimator does not really focus the x-rays, it just blocks the photons that are not traveling in a single direction, thus it can’t increase the concentration of the power of the x-ray beam.
Because of this, the intensity of the x-rays will be diminished rapidly as distance increases. While an x-ray machine may be dangerous at very close proximity (for example, one meter from the head or less), it will be of relatively little concern at four or five meters and completely harmless at ten meters.
In the end, this is really what kills the whole concept of an x-ray weapon. X-rays have been known about for more than century, and the idea of using x-rays as a weapon is nothing new. However, as with most directed energy weapons (the exception being lasers) the inverse square law and the difficulty in concentrating and focusing the power of the beam makes it totally unworkable as a weapon.
EDIT - SOME ADDITIONAL INFO:
I realize I neglected to provide much in the way of hard numbers for exposure from an x-ray machine.
A reasonably powerful hospital x-ray machine, of the type used for fluoroscopic imaging could produce a radiation dose of about five REMs per minute or .05 sieverts per minute. A more powerful hospital x-ray could produce upwards of 25 rems per minute or up .25 sieverts per minute. Note that this assumes that the subject is in very close proximity to the unit, less than a meter away from the head. It’s possible a very high power x-ray machine could deliver upwards of 50 rem per minute or .5 sieverts per minute.
Depending on how close the subject gets to the machine, a dose high enough to cause fatal radiation sickness is likely to take ten minutes or more of continuous exposure at less than a half a meter from the x-ray head. Any distance greater will result in a much longer time period in the beam being required.
Of course, mild radiation sickness could be induced with much lower doses. Some people might begin to feel nausea and fatigue after a minute or two. After this period of time, there would also be a small, but statistically significant increase in lifetime cancer risk. Exposure of a few seconds, however, would not produce enough of an increase in cancer risk to be noticeable. (actually, it might not produce any, but that’s another debate entirely)
This entry was posted on Friday, June 21st, 2013 at 9:10 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Conspiracy Theories, inverse square, media, Misc. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
View blog reactions