Also known as "Radiological Bombs" or "radiological dispersal devices", Dirty Bombs are non-nuclear devices with radiological material added to them. These bombs show up in many pieces of media involving The War on Terror and are based on a pretty simple concept: detonating explosives in order to spread radioactive materials over a large area.
The main effect of a radiological bomb is psychological, as most people are afraid of anything radiation related, though it would require thorough decontamination of the affected area, which takes time and resources. As a trope/plot device, this particular kind of hazard would be used to increase the stakes, and for the Ripped from the Headlines kind of excitement.
The radioactive material can be anything which emits radioactive radiation, and it can be obtained from any source, such as hospitals, clinics, research facilities, nuclear power plants or - at worst - a scrap dealer. The bomb itself can be just any kind of a conventional explosive or ammunition. Construction of a dirty bomb is trivial and does not require any special knowledge on either explosives nor nuclear physics.
In Real Life radiological bombs are Awesome, but Impractical. As weapons of mass disruption, their main purpose is to scare people, as the actual process of spreading radioactive material through an area is just highly inefficient and hard to evenly spread out in any manner where the material would affect large populations in any serious manner. In fiction, however, these bombs are very powerful and intimidating, often to the point of being an effective Depopulation Bomb. In addition, due to how precise real nuclear weapons are, certain types of malfunctions can prevent them from initiating, turning what would have been a terrifying mushroom cloud into a much smaller, but still radioactive, explosion.
Subtrope of Trick Bomb. Not to be confused with either a stink bomb, which is chemical in nature but has no radioactive component, nor with a nuclear bomb, which uses a chain reaction of nuclear fission to produce the explosive power and whose examples can be found in Nuke 'em, nor with salted bombs, which are atomic devices designed to spread more radiological material than usual for the purposes of area denial rather than for destruction, nor the Neutron Bomb, which increases immediate radiation release, and especially not with the Atomic F-Bomb.
Also not to be confused with the videogame of the same name.
- Batman: Assault on Arkham: The secondary plot involves Batman trying to figure out where Joker hid one of these before he was sent back to Arkham, leading into the climax where Batman then has to stop the Joker from detonating it.
- In Gaiji Keisatsu Black Dawn, Japanese and South Korean law enforcement/intelligence agencies are forced to work together after North Korean terrorists were reported to be last seen sneaking in and out of Fukushima in order to secure Japanese-made tech and information related to nuclear science. The movie suggests that they've been sneaking around the region after the 3/11 earthquake in order to help expedite the construction of a dirty bomb in the Korean Peninsula. The ending of the movie suggests that the head of the National Intelligence Service is willing to let the North Koreans activate their bomb before they're taken out at the last minute in order to support hardline policies against Pyongyang.
- In Goldfinger, Auric Goldfinger's scheme is to use an explosive to irradiate the gold at Fort Knox, all to increase the value of his own personal gold stockpile. In a case of Artistic License – Nuclear Physics, he uses a salted nuke (which realistically would have reduced Fort Knox to a crater) rather than a proper dirty bomb.
- In Halo: Nightfall, a Sangheili extremist attacks a shopping mall on Sedra with a transuranic element that acts similarly to a dirty bomb, releasing radiation that poisons and kills surrounding people seemingly at random.
- In the movie Operation Red Sea, Chinese commandos from the People's Liberation Army Navy's Sea Dragon Jiaolong Assault Team stumble into a plan made by a Yewairean terrorist group known as Zaka to convert yellowcake materials into a dirty bomb.
- Michael Connelly novel The Overlook has Harry Bosch investigate the murder of a man who handles radioactive material meant for medical use. When Harry and his partner find out that the man just withdrew a bunch of radioactive material at the behest of terrorists who kidnapped his wife, the FBI takes charge and it becomes a counterterrorism investigation of a "dirty bomb" plot.
- The Killer Ascendant, by Barry Eisler. Rogue Agent Jim Hilger plans to set off a dirty bomb in the Rotterdam port refineries. He's a Well-Intentioned Extremist who wants to wean the United States off its dependence on oil by raising the cost of shipping it. Hilger uses Caesium-137 detonated by 100 pounds of TNT, because it's more easily treated than Strontium-90, but is difficult to remove from metal.
- In the 1952 Science Fiction novel Limbo by Bernard Wolfe, World War III involves not only H-bombs but weapons that spew out radiological dust for days, contaminating entire metropolitan areas.
- The bread and butter of 24. By the time Season 6 has rolled around, there are six dirty bombs that need to be found and neutralized, and they fail on at least one of them.
- Blindspot: "Split the Law" features not only a radiological bomb, but a bomb-maker as well. (His accomplices are shown to be dying of radiation poisoning, and the FBI agents tasked with tracking down the bomb are given radiation monitors and told about the risks of extended exposure to radiation.)
- Castle: The season 3 episode "Countdown" has the NYPD desperately trying to find one before it goes off. When Beckett & Castle find it, the obvious big red timer is counting down with less than a minute to go, and it's going to take five minutes for the bomb squad to make it through traffic. At 0:01, Castle yanks out all the wires, pointing out that one of them had to be the right one.
- An episode in CSI: Miami has the team trying to prevent one from being detonated.
- "Enemy Below", the 7th Season finale of JAG involved a plot where terrorists in a diesel sub plan to fire a "dirty cruise missile" at the U.S.S. Seahawk carrier battle group. The missile is launched, which leads to Harm and another pilot attempting to shoot the missile down in mid-air. When that fails Harm gets the missile to lock on to him and chase his Tomcat until it runs out of gas and crashes harmlessly into the sea.
- Madam Secretary: In "Left of the Boom", Hizb al-Shahid (a Daesh clone) steals spent uranium from Moldova and uses it in a suicide-bombing of an Muslim girls' education conference in Virginia. Henry McCord suffers radiation poisoning but survives. The rest of the season deals with the fallout from the attack, with Henry working on a task force to counter HS.
- One first-season episode of Nikita has a Mêlée à Trois develop between Division, its Russian counterpart Gogol, and Nikita and her ally CIA analyst Ryan Fletcher, over a dirty bomb. Nikita ultimately tricks Gogol into taking a Fakin' MacGuffin away from her, letting Fletcher hand over the bomb to the CIA.
- NUMB3RS has an episode called "Dirty Bomb", where the FBI has to find a hijacked truck-load of radioactive cesium before it can be turned into one.
- Rush (2008) (Last Season) has the TR team deployed to Melbourne to evacuate the city and find a dirty bomb made out of smuggled nuclear material from Russia. Word of God mentions that two are deployed are are disarmed. They were made by the Church of the Shining Cloud.
- The 7th season of Strike Back (aka Revolution) has a nuclear missile missing from a Russian Tu-160 thanks to a rogue airman, which is sent from Malaysia to India, where the payload is disassembled to portable nukes for a dirty bomb attack against India's Muslim populace.
- S.W.A.T. (2017) has the episode "The B-Team" where the LAPD and FBI are working together to hunt down a radical faction of the Okinawan independence movement since they wanted to use a dirty bomb against USFJ bases for the crimes committed by USFJ military and civilian personnel against the local populace with assistance from a corrupt research assistant from a research center who was Only in It for the Money.
- In Valor, the ultimate plan of Khalid Samatar's contact in the United States is to detonate a dirty bomb on American soil.
- Command & Conquer: Generals: The GLA uses anthrax instead of radiation, but the effect is the same: a cloud of near-instadeath to infantry, while vehicles last only slightly longer. Their Bomb Trucks can be upgraded to do more damage, leave a cloud of anthrax, or both.
- Detroit: Become Human: An android steals a truck loaded with radioactive cobalt, wires it up to explode, then gives the remote detonator to Markus, leader of the android rights movement. Significantly, this bomb could make all of Detroit uninhabitable for humans, but the radiation would pose no threat to the androids. It's up to the player whether Markus sets off the bomb or not—if you do, it results in a Bolivian Army Ending where the US President declares this the start of an all-out war against the androids.
- The Excuse Plot of Dirty Bomb explains not only why massive areas of London are deserted but also provides a battlefield hazard to avoid.
- First Strike Final Hour includes a Dirty Bomb as one the unlockable superweapons, which renders any zone it hits unusable for the rest of the game.
- The first Splinter Cell game has an SADM (Special Atomic Delivery Munitions) hidden in Washington D.C. by Georgian president Kombayn Nikoladze as a final insurance policy in case he's taken out while in power. Thankfully, Third Echelon was able to provide the information to D.C. Police, neutralizing it.
- The third and final flashback mission of The Bourne Conspiracy has Bourne investigating a deal between a French Arms Dealer and a Moroccan terrorist cell. The merchandise being sold turns out to be a dirty bomb.
- In Wasteland 2 the Servants of the Mushroom Cloud combine this with Action Bomb as a way to deter attackers. Anyone who attacks them or their wards gets a dirty bomb going of in their face, courtesy of an angry kamikaze preist.