The consequence of a dirty bomb attack

As with Fukushima, we can expect the first hours of a radiological attack to be filled with incomplete and misleading information. There will be conflicting recommendations from experts, the media and public figures—as when the 20 kilometer evacuation zone set by Japanese authorities was immediately contradicted by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The second lesson of Fukushima is that we have a great deal to fear from fear itself. Measurements of elevated radioactivity in the vicinity of the reactors led to panic hundreds of miles away, triggering a run on sodium iodine in California and table salt in China. First responders will need to prepare for these sorts of unexpected consequences, and hospitals will need to prepare for wave after wave of the “worried well.” The complexities of responding to a radioactive incident in New York become clear when you notice that the roster for this last week’s exercise: personnel from 150 agencies spanning three states and several federal authorities. 

In other words, a radiological attack against the United States would generate unpredictable and cascading consequences for which it is difficult to prepare. An evacuation of the affected area, immediate or delayed, would be likely. The aftermath of Katrina showed that such relocations have a massive human and financial cost. We saw this again in Fukushima, where ten towns were emptied of some 200,000 people, adding to the stricken region’s refugee crisis. These refugees, already staggering with loss of home and family, experienced ostracism by host communities who feared contamination. 

The effects of a radiological attack are often downplayed in comparison to a nuclear, biological or nuclear attack, since compared to these devices casualties would be low, leading some commentators to dismiss radiological weapons as mere “weapon of mass disruption.” However, a radiological event would strike a massive blow to America’s sense of safety, security and well being—and could have massive economic implications.  

Consider an attack on New York with a relatively long-lived isotope such as Cesium-137, which could persist for hundreds of years. After the initial shock and trauma, the city would start to recover—but with lingering anxiety. It is hard to imagine what it would mean to see the Chrysler building, Wall Street, or the Statue of Liberty became a “no go zone” overnight. Clean up could extend for years and cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

An attack would have massive implications for the real estate market. Those with the ability to move would do so, creating an overnight plunge in property values near the affected area. There could be ripple effects as citizens in San Francisco and Chicago, fearing a similar attack, take another look at the suburbs. This is not just a concern of the affluent –as the last few years have shown, the nation’s economic health rests to a distressing degree upon the well being of the real estate market. 

We can hope that this week’s exercise will help establish a clear response and communication plan that can mitigate consequences. For example, a “shelter in place” strategy could effectively protect civilians until the most damaging radiation dissipated. On the other hand, a poorly managed response could lead to a chaotic evacuation, increasing the number of people exposed and spreading contaminants. This risk is especially acute in a city with memories of the twin falling towers.

Given the likely costs of such an attack, and the difficulty of crafting an effective response, it is worth investing heavily in prevention. Effective intelligence and counterterrorism operations have foiled past “dirty bomb” plots, and are essential. However, a comprehensive approach requires securing weapons-usable material at its source. 

This week marks the one year anniversary of the president’s Nuclear Security Summit, an unprecedented meeting of 47 national leaders that focused on locking down nuclear weapons-usable material. In its first meeting, the Summit focused on securing material that could be used to build a nuclear bomb. The next meeting of the Nuclear Security Summit will expand the agenda to focus on additional materials that could be used in a radiological device. With a variety of industrial uses – from medical isotopes to mining—and are often poorly monitored, making them a prime target for terrorists. The United States must lead the way in building cooperative approaches for securing and accounting for these dangerous materials. 

Carl Robichaud is a specialist in nuclear policy at the Carnegie Corporation of New York and editor of Breaking the Nuclear Impasse: New Prospects for Security against Weapons Threats.