Feds Say They Cracked “X-Ray Weapon” Plot

June 21st, 2013
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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.

Via the New York Times:

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.
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9 Responses to “Feds Say They Cracked “X-Ray Weapon” Plot”

  1. 1
    Gordon Says:

    There are a lot of crazies in the world. Thankfully, the same craziness that makes them want to do harm can also make it harder for them to acomplish it.

    I’m sure if they got as far as deploying the thing, they would have gotten arrested anyway, long before harming anyone.

    Considering the best way of using it is to find someone and say “Excuse me, will you please stand right here, in front of my x-ray head for a few minutes while I turn it on” I would not be so worried.

    Then again, I could see how the press and public would go nuts just because of radiophobia. Even if you can’t harm someone with it, you could expose them to a little bit of extra radiation. In this day and age, people tend to panic over that.


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  2. 2
    Jason J Says:

    Your rendering shows it with one x-ray head. But what if it had more. Suppose, for example, you had ten of those x-ray heads stacked. You would need a much bigger generator and transformer or transformers (maybe a HV utility distribution transformer of high enough voltage even)

    Still, then ten times the radiation. You could make someone get radiation sickness in 10% of the time.

    Still has to be close though


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  3. 3
    DV82XL Says:

    X-rays for industrial radiography where high flux is required is supplied by gamma radiation sources, most commonly iridium-192, caesium-137 and cobalt-60. Radioisotope sources have the advantage that they do not need a supply of electrical power to function. These are very common in non-destructive testing in aerospace.


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  4. 4
    drbuzz0 Says:

    Yes, but this was clearly a tube-based system or at least was supposed to be. Other news stories quote them as saying it was a “Hiroshima Light Switch” that could be turned on and off.

    Not to mention, radioisotope sources are a bit hard to come by and difficult to transport.


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  5. 5
    DV82XL Says:

            drbuzz0 said:

    Not to mention, radioisotope sources are a bit hard to come by and difficult to transport.

    Obviously these dummies didn’t know their arses from their elbows, but many of the “lost source” accidents reported by the International Atomic Energy Agency involve radiography equipment and as I recall the torches (so-called radiographic cameras) were quite portable.

    As an aside, looking into it just now, industrial radiography appears to have one of the worst safety profiles of all the radiation professions.


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  6. 6
    Robert Sneddon Says:

    Somewhere I have a “locked room” murder mystery I started writing a long time ago involving someone who was found cooked to death in his hotel bedroom. The killer used an array of gimmicked microwave ovens (doors removed, safety switches overridden) in the room next door positioned up against the adjoining wall where the victim’s bed was located.

    Yeah, not very likely and the power consumption alone would have been a red flag never mind the necessity for the victim to stay in place while being roasted alive over a period of several hours.

    I recall an American cop show episode where the murder weapon was a Co-60 source deliberately left pointing at the office in a scrapyard and “switched on” when the victim was at his desk. The detectives figured it out when they noticed the office aquarium had a lot of dead fish and vegetation.


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  7. 7
    PsihoKekec Says:

    So they prevented two crazies from killing themselves by trying to build a X-Ray wunderwaffe, “A je to” style.


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  8. 8
    Chris Says:

    I find it odd they were charged with attempting to build a weapon on “Mass Destruction.” This device – even if real – would seem more like a “weapon of no destruction” or a “weapon that only affects the targeted person.” As far as collateral damage goes – there is none – of course there is also no actual target damage which is the rub I guess.


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  9. 9
    drbuzz0 Says:

            Chris said:

    I find it odd they were charged with attempting to build a weapon on “Mass Destruction.” This device – even if real – would seem more like a “weapon of no destruction” or a “weapon that only affects the targeted person.” As far as collateral damage goes – there is none – of course there is also no actual target damage which is the rub I guess.

    Yeah well… the feds seem to like to charge everyone with trumped up terrorism-sounding charges these days. Actually, it seems to be the norm on every level.

    A student was charged with bomb-making or having an explosive or dangerous device over a small sample of uranium minerals. Uranium doesn’t explode, but, whatever, right?

    A guy in Staten Island was imprisoned for a couple of years and was facing terror charges associated with selling explosives to terrorist organizations. He didn’t sell anything to terrorist organizations. He had bought some saltpeter in bulk from a wholesaler and sold it in smaller portions. Saltpeter is used to make old fashioned black powder. It’s also used for curing meats, as an ingredient in sensitive teeth toothpaste and as a fertilizer. You can buy it freely with no license. That apparently does not matter to the authorities.

    A retired chemist in Massachusetts had his house raided, neighborhood evacuated and almost was charged with terrorism. Apparently someone saw that he had some chemical-looking things, including beakers and labware and some legal and completely benign chemicals.

    A few years ago, some kids in Texas hung some boxes around the town on fishing line from trees and stuff. The boxes were cardboard and decorated to look like they had a pixelated question mark on them, like the boxes in the classic Super Mario Brothers games. The sheriff called it “a mild act of terrorism”

    This is the world we live in.


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