FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
March / April 2002
Volume 55, Number 2
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Dirty Bombs: Response to a Threat
Making Sense of Information Restrictions After September 11
The "War on Terror" and the "War on Drugs": A Comparison
Results of the FAS Member Survey
FAS Staff News

Dirty Bombs: Response to a Threat

Henry Kelly testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 6, 2002 on the threat of radiological attack by terrorist groups. This excerpt is taken from the text of his written testimony, based on analysis by Michael Levi, Robert Nelson, and Jaime Yassif, which can be found by clicking here.

Surely there is no more unsettling task than considering how to defend our nation against individuals and groups seeking to advance their aims by killing and injuring innocent people. But recent events make it necessary to take almost inconceivably evil acts seriously. Our analysis of this threat has reached three principle conclusions:

  1. Radiological attacks constitute a credible threat. Radioactive materials that could be used for such attacks are stored in thousands of facilities around the US, many of which may not be adequately protected against theft by determined terrorists. Some of this material could be easily dispersed in urban areas by using conventional explosives or by other methods.
  2. While radiological attacks would result in some deaths, they would not result in the hundreds of thousands of fatalities that could be caused by a crude nuclear weapon. Attacks could contaminate large urban areas with radiation levels that exceed EPA health and toxic material guidelines.
  3. Materials that could easily be lost or stolen from US research institutions and commercial sites could contaminate tens of city blocks at a level that would require prompt evacuation and create terror in large communities even if radiation casualties were low. Areas as large as tens of square miles could be contaminated at levels that exceed recommended civilian exposure limits. Since there are often no effective ways to decontaminate buildings that have been exposed at these levels, demolition may be the only practical solution. If such an event were to take place in a city like New York, it would result in losses of potentially trillions of dollars.

Background

Significant amounts of radioactive materials are stored in laboratories, food irradiation plants, oil drilling facilities, medical centers, and many other sites. Cobalt-60 and cesium-137 are used in food disinfection, medical equipment sterilization, and cancer treatments. During the 1960s and 1970s the federal government encouraged the use of plutonium in university facilities studying nuclear engineering and nuclear physics. Americium is used in smoke detectors and in devices that find oil sources.

With the exception of nuclear power reactors, commercial facilities do not have the types or volumes of materials usable for making nuclear weapons. Facility owners provide adequate security when they have a vested interest in protecting commercially valuable material. However, once radioactive materials are no longer needed and costs of appropriate disposal are high, security measures become lax, and the likelihood of abandonment or theft increases.

We must wrestle with the possibility that sophisticated terrorist groups may be interested in obtaining these materials and with the enormous danger to society that such thefts might present. Significant quantities of radioactive material have been lost or stolen from US facilities during the past few years and thefts of foreign sources have led to fatalities. In the US, sources have been found abandoned in scrap yards, vehicles, and residential buildings.

If these materials were dispersed in an urban area, they would pose a serious health hazard. Intense sources of gamma rays can cause acute radiation poisoning, or even fatalities at high doses. Long-term exposure to low levels of gamma rays can cause cancer. If alpha emitters, such as plutonium, americium or other elements, are present in the environment in particles small enough to be inhaled, these particles can become lodged in the lungs and damage tissue, leading to long-term cancers.

Case Studies

We have chosen three specific cases to illustrate the range of impacts that could be created by malicious use of comparatively small radioactive sources: the amount of cesium that was discovered recently abandoned in North Carolina, the amount of cobalt commonly found in a single rod in a food irradiation facility, and the amount of americium typically found in oil well logging systems. The impact would be much greater if the radiological device in question released the enormous amounts of radioactive material found in a single nuclear reactor fuel rod, but it would be quite difficult and dangerous for anyone to attempt to obtain and ship such a rod without death or detection. The Committee will undoubtedly agree that the danger presented by modest radiological sources that are comparatively easy to obtain is significant as well.

The impact of radioactive material release in a populated area would vary depending on a number of factors, such as the amount of material released, the nature of the material, the details of the device that distributes the material, the direction and speed of the wind, other weather conditions, the size of the particles released (which affects their ability to be carried by the wind and to be inhaled), and the location and size of buildings near the release site. Uncertainties inherent in the complex models used in predicting the effects of a radiological weapon mean that it is only possible to make crude estimates of impacts; the estimated damage we show might be off by an order of magnitude.

In all three cases we have assumed that the material is released on a calm day (wind speed of one mile per hour) and that the material is distributed by an explosion that causes a mist of fine particles to spread downwind in a cloud. People will be exposed to radiation in several ways.

  • They will be exposed to material in the dust inhaled during the initial passage of the radiation cloud, if they have not been able to escape the area before the dust cloud arrives. We assume that about twenty percent of the material is in particles small enough to be inhaled. If this material is an alpha emitter, it will stay in the body and lead to long term exposure.
  • Anyone living in the affected area will be exposed to material deposited from the dust that settles from the cloud. If the material contains gamma emitters, residents will be continuously exposed to radiation from this dust. If the material contains alpha emitters, dust that is pulled off the ground and into the air by wind, automobile movement, or other actions will continue to be inhaled, adding to exposure.
  • In a rural area, people would also be exposed to radiation from contaminated food and water sources.

The EPA has a series of recommendations for addressing radioactive contamination that would likely guide official response to a radiological attack. Immediately after the attack, authorities would evacuate people from areas contaminated to levels exceeding those guidelines. People who received more than twenty-five times the threshold dose for evacuation would have to be taken in for medical supervision.

In the long term, the cancer hazard from the remaining radioactive contamination would have to be addressed. Typically, if decontamination could not reduce the danger of cancer death to about one-in-ten-thousand, the EPA would recommend the contaminated area be eventually abandoned. Several materials that might be used in a radiological attack can chemically bind to concrete and asphalt, while other materials would become physically lodged in crevices on the surface of buildings, sidewalks and streets. Options for decontamination would range from sandblasting to demolition, with the latter likely being the only feasible option. Some radiological materials would also chemically bind to soil in city parks, with the only disposal method being large scale removal of contaminated dirt. In short, there is a high risk that the area contaminated by a radiological attack would have to be deserted.

Fig. 1 Long-term Contamination Due to Cesium Bomb in Washington, DC. More...

Inner Ring: One cancer death per 100 people due to remaining radiation (5% increase)

Middle Ring: One cancer death per 1,000 people due to remaining radiation (.5% increase)

Outer Ring: One cancer death per 10,000 people due to remaining radiation (.05% increase): EPA recommends decontamination or destruction

Example 1:
Cesium (Gamma Emitter)

Two weeks ago, a lost medical gauge containing cesium was discovered in North Carolina. Imagine that the cesium in this device was exploded in Washington, DC in a bomb using ten pounds of TNT. The initial passing of the radioactive cloud would be relatively harmless, and no one would have to evacuate immediately. However, residents of an area of about five city blocks, if they remained, would have a one-in-a-thousand chance of getting cancer. A swath about one mile long covering an area of forty city blocks would exceed EPA contamination limits, with remaining residents having a one-in-ten thousand chance of getting cancer. If decontamination were not possible, these areas would have to be abandoned for decades. If the device was detonated at the National Gallery of Art, the contaminated area might include the Capitol, Supreme Court, and Library of Congress, as seen if Figure 1.

Fig. 2 Long-term Contamination Due to Cobalt Bomb in NYC - EPA Standards. More...

Inner Ring: One cancer death per 100 people due to remaining radiation (5% increase)

Middle Ring: One cancer death per 1,000 people due to remaining radiation (.5% increase)

Outer Ring: One cancer death per 10,000 people due to remaining radiation (.05% increase): EPA recommends decontamination or destruction

Fig. 3 Contamination Due to Cobalt Bomb in NYC - Chernobyl Comparison. More...

Inner Ring: Same radiation level as permanently closed zone around Chernobyl

Middle Ring: Same radiation level as permanently controlled zone around Chernobyl

Outer Ring: Same radiation level as periodically controlled zone around Chernobyl

Example 2:
Cobalt (Gamma Emitter)

Now imagine if a single piece of radioactive cobalt from a food irradiation plant were dispersed by an explosion at the lower tip of Manhattan. Typically, each of these cobalt "pencils" is about one inch in diameter and one foot long, with hundreds of such pieces often being found in the same facility. Admittedly, acquisition of such material is less likely than in the previous scenario, but we still consider the results, depicted in Figure 2. Again, no immediate evacuation would be necessary, but in this case, an area of approximately one-thousand square kilometers, extending over three states, would be contaminated. Over an area of about three hundred typical city blocks, there would be a one-in-ten risk of death from cancer for residents living in the contaminated area for forty years. The entire borough of Manhattan would be so contaminated that anyone living there would have a one-in-a-hundred chance of dying from cancer caused by the residual radiation. It would be decades before the city was inhabitable again, and demolition might be necessary.

For comparison, consider the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, in which a Soviet nuclear power plant went through a meltdown. Radiation was spread over a vast area, and the region surrounding the plant was permanently closed. In our current example, the area contaminated to the same level of radiation as that region would cover much of Manhattan, as shown in Figure 3. Furthermore, near Chernobyl, a larger area has been subject to periodic controls on human use such as restrictions on food, clothing, and time spent outdoors. In the current example, the equivalent area extends fifteen miles.

Example 3:
Americium (Alpha Emitter)

If a typical americium source used in oil well surveying were blown up with one pound of TNT, people in a region roughly ten times the area of the initial bomb blast would require medical supervision and monitoring, as depicted in Figure 4. An area thirty times the size of the first area (a swath one kilometer long and covering twenty city blocks) would have to be evacuated within half an hour. After the initial passage of the cloud, most of the radioactive materials would settle to the ground. Of these materials, some would be forced back up into the air and inhaled, thus posing a long-term health hazard, as illustrated by Figure 5. A ten-block area contaminated in this way would have a cancer death probability of one-in-a-thousand. A region two kilometers long and covering sixty city blocks would be contaminated in excess of EPA safety guidelines. If the buildings in this area had to be demolished and rebuilt, the cost would exceed fifty billion dollars.

Fig. 4 Immediate Effects Due to Americium Bomb in New York City. More...

Inner Ring: Current guidelines state that all persons must recieve medical supervision

Middle Ring: Maximum annual dose for radiation workers exceeded

Outer Ring: Current guidelines state that the area should be evacuated before radiation cloud passes

* These are general guidelines only. In the event of an actual attack, FAS recommends that you follow the instructions of local authorities.

Fig. 5 Contamination Due to Americium Bomb in New York City.More...

Inner Ring: One cancer death per 100 people due to remaining radiation (5% increase)

Middle Ring: One cancer death per 1,000 people due to remaining radiation (.5% increase)

Outer Ring: One cancer death per 10,000 people due to remaining radiation (.05% increase): EPA recommends decontamination or destruction

Recommendations

A number of practical steps can be taken that would greatly reduce the risks presented by radiological weapons. Since the US is not alone in its concern about radiological attack, and since we clearly benefit by limiting access to dangerous materials anywhere in the world, many of the measures recommended should be undertaken as international collaborations.

1. Reduce access to radioactive materials

Measures needed to improve the security of facilities holding dangerous amounts of these materials will increase costs. In some cases, it may be worthwhile to pay a higher price for increased security. In other instances, however, the development of alternative technologies may be the more economically viable option. Specific security steps include the following:

Fully fund material recovery and storage programs. Hundreds of plutonium, americium, and other radioactive sources are stored in dangerously large quantities in university laboratories and other facilities. In all too many cases they are not used frequently, resulting in the risk that attention to their security will diminish over time. At the same time, it is difficult for the custodians of these materials to dispose of them since in many cases only the Department of Energy (DoE) is authorized to recover and transport them to permanent disposal sites. The DoE Off-Site Source Recovery Project, which is responsible for undertaking this task, has successfully secured over three-thousand sources and has moved them to a safe location. Unfortunately, the inadequate funding of this program serves as a serious impediment to further source recovery efforts. This program should be given the needed attention and firm goals should be set for identifying, transporting, and safeguarding all unneeded radioactive materials.

Review licensing and security requirements and inspection procedures for all dangerous amounts of radioactive material. Human Health Services, the DoE, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and other affected agencies should be provided with sufficient funding to ensure that physical protection measures are adequate and that inspections are conducted on a regular basis. A thorough reevaluation of security regulations should be conducted to ensure that protective measures apply to amounts of radioactive material that pose a homeland security threat, not just those that present a threat of accidental exposure.

Fund research aimed at finding alternatives to radioactive materials. A research program aimed at developing inexpensive substitutes for radioactive materials in functions such as food sterilization, smoke detection, and oil well logging should be created and provided with adequate funding.

2. Early Detection

Expanded use of radiation detection systems. Systems capable of detecting dangerous amounts of radiation are comparatively inexpensive and unobtrusive. The Office of Homeland Security should act promptly to identify all areas where such sensors should be installed, ensure that information from these sensors is continuously assessed, and ensure adequate maintenance and testing. High priority should be given to key points in the transportation system, such as airports, harbors, rail stations, tunnels, highways. Routine checks of scrap metal yards and land fill sites would also protect against illegal or accidental disposal of dangerous materials.

Fund research to improve detectors. A program should be put in place to find ways of improving upon existing detection technologies as well as improving plans for deployment of these systems and for responding to alarms.

3. Effective Disaster response

An effective response to a radiological attack requires a system capable of quickly gauging the extent of the damage, identifying appropriate responders, developing a coherent response plan, and getting the necessary personnel and equipment to the site rapidly.

First responders and hospital personnel need to understand how to protect themselves and affected citizens in the event of a radiological attack and be able to rapidly determine if individuals have been exposed to radiation. There is great danger that panic in the event of a radiological attack on a large city could lead to significant casualties and severely stress the medical system. While generous funding has been made available for this training, the program appears in need of a clear management strategy. Dozens of federal and state organizations are involved, and it is not clear how materials will be certified or accredited.

Research into cleanup of radiologically contaminated cities has been conducted in the past, primarily in addressing the possibility of nuclear war. Such programs should be revisited with an eye to the specific requirements of cleaning up after a radiological attack.

Conclusion

The events of September 11 have created a need to very carefully assess our defense needs and ensure that the resources we spend for security are aligned with the most pressing security threats. The US has indicated its willingness to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to combat threats that are, in our view, far less likely to occur than a radiological attack. This includes funding defensive measures that are far less likely to succeed than the measures that we propose in this testimony. The comparatively modest investments to reduce the danger of radiological attack surely deserve priority support.

In the end, however, we must face the brutal reality that no technological remedies can provide complete confidence that we are safe from radiological attack. Determined, malicious groups might still find a way to use radiological weapons or other means when their only goal is killing innocent people, and if they have no regard for their own lives. In the long run our greatest hope must lie in building a prosperous, free world where the conditions that breed such monsters have vanished from the earth.

FAS Conclusions

Radiological attacks constitute a credible threat. Radioactive materials that could be used for such attacks are stored in thousands of facilities around the US, many of which may not be adequately protected against theft by determined terrorists. Some of this material could be easily dispersed in urban areas by using conventional explosives or by other methods.

Radiological attacks would not result in the hundreds of thousands of fatalities that could be caused by a crude nuclear weapon, though they could contaminate large urban areas.

Materials that could easily be lost or stolen could contaminate tens of city blocks at a level that would require prompt evacuation and create terror in large communities even if radiation casualties were low. But, since there are often no effective ways to decontaminate buildings that have been exposed at these levels, demolition may be the only practical solution.

FAS Recommendations

Reduce access to radioactive materials

  1. Fully fund material recovery and storage programs.
  2. Review licensing and security requirements and inspection procedures for all dangerous amounts of radioactive material.
  3. Fund research aimed at finding alternatives to radioactive materials.

Early Detection

  1. Expanded use of radiation detection systems.
  2. Fund research to improve detectors.

Effective Disaster response

  1. First responders and hospital personnel need to understand how to protect themselves and affected citizens.
  2. Research into cleanup of radiologically contaminated cities.