30 January 2004

Dealing with Dirty Bombs: Plain Facts, Practical Solutions

Dealing with Dirty Bombs: Plain Facts, Practical Solutions:

by James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., and Jack Spencer

Most assessments of America's vulnerabilities include some mention of the nation's susceptibility to attacks by radiological dispersal devices, or 'dirty bombs.' The threat is often portrayed as a homogenous danger, but it in fact covers a spectrum of risks, not all of which are equally serious.

Because the nature of the threat is often misconstrued, there is no shared appreciation of the problem or how best to address it. The reality is that the threat of a dirty bomb attack by terrorists is a credible one, although the psychological and economic consequences would likely far outweigh any casualties or physical destruction. To be better prepared, the United States should:

* Develop national standards for emergency response,

* Create a national system-of-systems emergency response structure,1

* Focus federal resources on developing national surge medical capacity,

* Centralize oversight of federal emergency medical response in the Department of Health and Human Services,

* Enhance federal expertise in emergency medical care, and

* Establish better coordination with the
private sector.

Building an effective national emergency response system could facilitate all these actions. Specifically, the U.S. should:

* Develop national standards for emergency response.

There are no national standards for an emergency response to a dirty bomb attack, or for that matter to any major terrorist incident. This is a subject of some debate. Long before September 11, experts in the field recognized that the lack of measurable objectives would make it difficult to establish policy goals, allocate resources properly, and establish the right balance of local, state, and federal roles in responding to a disaster. On the other hand, many have opposed such an initiative. The National Governors' Association, for example, has argued against mandatory standards. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has called for broad discretion in funding, allowing communities to adapt resources to local needs.

In fact, current assessments of preparedness are based on voluntary surveys and needs assessments. Both have significant shortfalls. They lack objective measures of preparedness and consistent criteria for determining what personnel and equipment are needed for emergency response. Nor do these assessments account for the biases frequently associated with self-reported information. Establishing broad national standards is essential for creating a rationale national response system.

The House Select Committee on Homeland Security has unanimously approved the Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responders Act (H.R. 3266), which includes procedures for establishing standards for responding to radiological attacks and other types of attacks using weapons of mass destruction. This legislation could serve as the foundation for establishing appropriate national preparedness standards.

* Establish better coordination with the private sector.

A significant portion of the cleanup after a radiological disaster will be conducted by the private sector. Potentially, in addition to professional responders and volunteers, there are about 6.5 million skilled construction workers in the United States who could respond in the wake of a disaster.

Thousands of workers, for example, were required at the World Trade Center to help in response and recovery operations. The response also illustrated the challenges of being unprepared to quickly integrate civilian assets into a dangerous emergency response environment. A safety survey of the site found that many of these workers lacked even basic safety equipment, including safety eyewear, dust masks, ear protection, gloves, steel-toed boots, and hard hats. As a result, numerous injuries occurred and long-term health concerns arose during the course of operations.

The DHS, in concert with state and local governments and the private sector, should explore means to pre-train and certify construction workers; establish a registry of qualified contractors, firms, and unions; and link them to emergency management agencies. The DHS also needs to determine how technologies to speed cleanup efforts and protect workers can be rapidly distributed or contracted from the private sector when required.


A clearer understanding of the dirty bomb threat will ensure that policymakers are prepared to coordinate public, private-sector, and governmental responses to a dirty bomb attack. Policymakers and the public need to understand the costs and risks associated with dirty bombs to invest appropriate resources for preparation and prevention efforts as well as for consequence mitigation.

Perhaps most important is ensuring that people do not overreact to the mere presence of radiation without full knowledge of the extent and type of contamination. Implementing a few commonsense policies will not only better prepare the nation for a dirty bomb attack, but also substantially increase America's general preparedness.

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is a Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security, and Jack Spencer is a Senior Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security, in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

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