The Power & Policy Fellows Forum
By Arnold Bogis
The latest diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks are filled with descriptions of smuggled radioactive materials. Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Michael Leiter recently testified to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that the likelihood of a dirty bomb attack may be as high as one with biological weapons. Two years ago, radioactive materials, ingredients for explosives, and literature on dirty bombs were discovered in a dead man’s house. Afghanistan or Pakistan? No: Belfast, Maine. Police responding to a domestic dispute discovered the dead man and the materials at the scene.
The threat of a dirty bomb attack is real, yet policymakers are emphasizing the wrong approach to deal with the threat. A focus on detecting radioactive materials overshadows more effective efforts that can be taken before, during, and after an attack.
The good news: a dirty bomb is not a nuclear bomb but conventional explosives laced with radioactive material. In 2002, then Senator Biden correctly characterized the effects during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He explained that although a dirty bomb detonated in Washington, D.C. could “kill dozens,” even worse would be the “catastrophic psychological impact.” This would make it difficult, for example, to convince citizens it was safe to return to contaminated areas, even though the increased chances of developing cancer would be “relatively minimal.”
The bad news: building a basic dirty bomb is not difficult. The amount of material that could be used in a dirty bomb is too large to catalog, as radiological sources are used widely in medicine, industry, and science.
While useful as part of an overarching strategy, detectors are likely to fail as the primary means in preventing a dirty bomb attack. Sensors at the border are useless against radioactive materials acquired inside the U.S. Detectors deployed along highways and other transportation routes are similarly ineffective against radiation sources stolen within the target city. Technology currently deployed will register false alarms caused by shipments of bananas, kitty litter, and other naturally radioactive substances. In recent years, both a retired police officer in New Hampshire and a cat in Washington State caused radiation detectors to alarm on highways due to medical treatments they received. Needless to say, neither “radioactive” patient was a terrorist.
If a dirty bomb cannot be prevented, what should be done about the threat? First, the worst radioactive ingredients should be secured. Second, to avoid the fear that will cause the real damage of a dirty bomb, steps should be taken to prepare for an attack. Third, decontamination plans should be developed now.
Although it is impossible to secure all radioactive materials, access to the most dangerous sources likely to be used in a dirty bomb can be restricted. The Departments of Homeland Security and Energy have been working toward this goal. However, stricter regulations for using radioactive sources must be enacted to support this effort.
An effective response in the moments after a dirty bomb explodes will be essential to not only save lives but also prevent panic. This requires educating the general public about radiation and disaster preparedness.
All first responders should have radiation detectors, proper personal protection equipment to operate in the presence of radiation, and the training to use it effectively. Doctors and nurses must be trained to treat potentially contaminated patients.
Elected officials must be ready to communicate with the public after an attack, armed with pre-scripted talking points describing the dangers of radiation. An educated and prepared public will be less likely to panic in the aftermath of a dirty bomb attack, and this will be reinforced by a well-managed reaction by first responders and elected officials.
Weeks and months after an attack, the long-term effects of radiation will need to be addressed. Advanced decontamination techniques and technologies that can reduce the radiation levels in city neighborhoods must be developed. Current guidelines concerning what is considered an acceptable amount of background radiation should be examined to determine if elevated levels would be safe to those living in the affected area.
Taken together, these steps will prevent widespread panic and significant economic damage. After the first dirty bomb attack fails, terrorists are unlikely to try again.
Arnold Bogis is a fellow and homeland security specialist with Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.