Published April 28, 2003 in Defense News
Experts agree that the dangers within dirty bombs lie not in their immediate impact but in the long-term contamination they might cause. Yet plans for the aftermath of a dirty bomb attack in the United States focus predominantly on responding to the attack's short-term effects.
This short-sighted approach is sorely inadequate to address the reality of dirty bombs. Instead of simply improving emergency response, we must invest time and money in learning better how to decontaminate after an attack.
After the initial panic from a dirty bomb attack subsides, public refusal to return to contaminated urban areas could cause severe economic damage. Almost immediately, daily business activity would come to a halt. Real estate values would plummet, and segments of the city might have to be abandoned or demolished if they could not be decontaminated to publicly acceptable levels.
Our best defense against this type of damage is a robust decontamination plan that will restore urban areas to safe exposure levels and allow normal economic activity to resume as quickly as possible. We need to identify appropriate existing technologies that can be transferred from small-scale cleanup tasks and adapt them to urban-scale decontamination.
Contrary to statements made in the press, hosing down the sides of buildings or waiting for rain will not decontaminate entire cities. Some materials that could be used in a dirty bomb, like cesium, chemically bind to asphalt, concrete and glass, and their removal would require much more rigorous techniques using abrasives or chemical solvents.
Even if the material could be carried away by water, washing if off could generate massive amounts of toxic, contaminated water.
Our response to the anthrax attacks shows that our decontamination plans leave much to be desired. The Environmental Protection Agency's lack of advance preparation meant that the Hart Senate Office Building decontamination was much more time consuming and costly than it should have been.
The process took three months and cost tens of millions of dollars.
Still, the challenges posed by last year's anthrax cleanup pale in comparison to the difficulty of decontaminating a much larger open area extending many city blocks, a task we could face in the aftermath of a dirty bomb attack.
We need to develop a decontamination strategy now so it can be implemented as rapidly is possible. Getting an early start is crucial because radiological decontamination becomes more difficult as time passes.
In weeks if not days, dust particles that were initially loose become trapped in layers of rust and oil or penetrate deeper into porous surfaces, and reactive materials chemically bind to buildings and streets. Advance preparations that speed decontamination will also reduce economic damage by minimizing the time an affected urban area is unused.
The US does not have experience in decontaminating urban areas in the aftermath of a radiological attack. Our experience is limited to the decontamination and decommissioning of industrial and government facilities, military decontamination exercises, and cleanup efforts in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster in Russia.
For these purposes, the national labs and private industry have developed a wide range of decontamination technologies, from pressure washers and HEPA vacuums to lasers and concrete-eating bacteria.
Some of these technologies may be well suited to high levels of contamination distributed on a small scale, such as in nuclear reactors or laboratory hotboxes. Others will be more appropriate for cleaning up larger laboratory spaces and outdoor areas. We need to identify those technologies that are applicable to large scale urban decontamination and adapt them for these purposes.
Despite these existing capabilities, we must still invest in research and development to test technologies for their effectiveness in large scale operations and to develop new technologies appropriate for these tasks. For example, we need to develop detectors that can scan large areas rapidly and effectively and find radioactive materials that, at this point, are hard to spot.
Still, no amount of technology will help us if it is not integrated into a broad decontamination strategy. We need to develop a plan that clearly outlines who will perform decontamination tasks, how tasks will be prioritized, and which techniques should be applied in what situations.
Radiological attacks pose a long term threat that requires a long term solution. The extent to which decontamination is successful in reducing radiological contamination will determine how much property can be salvaged and economic damage reduced. Preparation now will pay off immeasurably later.