“No Jack, that is not how a dirty bomb works, they’d all be dead!” My wife looked over at me in parts alarm and exasperation as I complained, as I so often do, about scientific inaccuracies on TV. Mostly, I let them pass. I love some good bingeable entertainment as much as the next person—but this one really bothered me because it will fundamentally affect the way the public understands a really dangerous issue. (Alert! Spoilers ahead.)
Amazon Prime’s debut of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan provided an entertaining, bingeable initial season about a CIA officer on a mission to stop terrorists from killing the president by setting off a so-called radioactive “dirty bomb” in a Washington, DC, hospital.
While interesting and enjoyable, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan contains some serious technical errors—and these ones really matter. Scientists often spot technical errors in films and television shows but let them pass. (Well, maybe they make a snarky comment to their spouse here and there.) But the errors in the Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan episodes risk sufficiently serious consequences that they need to be addressed.
The first season of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan follows the story of terrorists threatening the president with a dirty bomb (technically, a cesium 137-based dispersal device—I am a scientist!). The terrorist team ships the radioactive cesium into the United States in a cargo container and then assembles the rocket-propelled dirty bomb using glass tubes containing a blue, crystalline material: cesium powder. The terrorists plan to shoot the rocket into a hospital ventilation fan, which will presumably distribute it to the room in which the president is being treated for possible exposure to Ebola (as if one deadly threat weren’t enough!) The rocket system is to be triggered by a cell phone.
Two terrorists retrieve the cesium from the seagoing cargo container when it arrives in Baltimore. Donning respirators and anti-contamination clothing, the two terrorists proceed to remove the glass tubes of cesium powder from a light framed metal box. They are frightened because the tip of one of the tubes (which resemble large versions of old-style medical ampules) has broken off and some of the powder is spilled when they handle it. When they leave the leaking tube on the floor, it is later discovered by a dockyard worker who enters the container to investigate why its lock is broken. The worker touches the cesium powder and then, seriously ill, reports to a hospital emergency room, shaky, pale, and vomiting from what is later diagnosed as acute radiation sickness.
While artistic license is certainly a screenwriter’s prerogative, the inaccuracies in the radiation/dirty bomb/dispersal device scenario do more than merely entertain. Because many members of the general public are not familiar with the details of radiation, radionuclides like cesium 137, or issues like radiation sickness, they can base their understanding on shows like Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. In this case, unfortunately, the technical inaccuracies are potentially dangerous. If a terrorist group really did use a cesium dirty bomb, the public might take the wrong lessons from Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. That could lead to undue panic and injury.
At the heart of the inaccuracies is the portrayal of radiation and the hazards it poses. Cesium 137 is highly radioactive. It emits high energy electrons and penetrating gamma rays. The respirators and suits the terrorists wore would have protected them from contamination, but would have had absolutely no protective value against deadly radiation. An analogy would be someone wearing a SCUBA suit for protection against the x-ray at a dentist’s office; the x-rays would still penetrate. Likewise, the glass tubes and the thin metal box from which the fictional terrorists unpacked the cesium would provide minimal shielding against radiation. In order to protect against cesium 137, dense materials like lead are required.
The Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan screenwriters were way off the mark in terms of how much cesium is needed for a dirty bomb. The amount of powder material in the tubes shown would be a massive amount of radioactive material. Even a few grams of cesium 137 in the unshielded powdered form (cesium chloride) would be lethal for those in close proximity. This highly penetrating radiation, in fact, is why cesium 137 is used in devices like medical sterilizers and blood sterilizers (it kills bacteria, viruses, etc.). It’s also why experts fear some nefarious person or organization might use it in a dirty bomb.
So, if the dock worker in the show was seriously exposed to radiation, the two terrorists would have been far worse off—probably fatally injured. Yet the show’s creators are encouraging the public to believe that, if you don’t make physical contact with the material, you’ll be OK—a potentially dangerous misperception.
While Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan underplays the potential danger of radioactive cesium and dirty bombs in one regard, it overplays the dangers in other ways. The typical realistic scenario for a dirty bomb is certainly serious, but many experts believe that the immediate danger to people would be minimal: It’s the explosion of a dirty bomb that would kill or injure people. On the other hand, the cleanup costs of an incident and other economic losses might be enormous. As a example, remember the cleanup costs associated with the post-9/11 anthrax letters.
The general public gets most of its understanding of technical issues from the media, including from shows like Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. Many people are not getting this kind of information from scientific classes, texts, articles, or lectures. It’s important that the lessons people learn from TV are accurate, or, that shows deal explicitly in the realm of fantasy
Technical people should speak out about technical inaccuracies if they have a potential public impact. A more technically accurate dirty bomb scenario could have been just as exciting for the Season 1 finale of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan. As a fan, I hope Season 2 will have a more accurate treatment of any technical issues in the story line.