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Senior Lawmaker Says U.S. Unprepared for “Dirty Bomb” Attack

By Martin Matishak

Global Security Newswire

(Oct. 7) -Firefighters evacuate a victim from the scene of a mock radiological "dirty bomb" attack during a 2004 drill at the Port of Los Angeles. The United States lacks adequate preparations for a radiological event, Representative Jane Harman (D-Calif.) said yesterday (David McNew/Getty Images). (Oct. 7) -Firefighters evacuate a victim from the scene of a mock radiological "dirty bomb" attack during a 2004 drill at the Port of Los Angeles. The United States lacks adequate preparations for a radiological event, Representative Jane Harman (D-Calif.) said yesterday (David McNew/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The United States does not have the tools needed to reclaim an area impacted by a terrorist attack involving a radiological "dirty bomb," an influential lawmaker said here yesterday (see GSN, Sept. 23).

"Right now, I would suggest that the U.S. is underprepared for a dirty bomb attack," Representative Jane Harman (D-Calif.) asserted during an event at the New America Foundation.

Most cities and states would rely too heavily on the federal government to conduct and fund recovery activities, including environmental cleanup, according to Harman, who chairs the House Homeland Security Intelligence Subcommittee.

While the Homeland Security Department has made strides in preparedness for an incident, including fielding fixed and mobile radiation detectors around the country, the federal government has provided limited guidance for state and local emergency preparedness agencies to develop recovery plans, Harman said.

She did not offer details or single out any specific federal department for blame.

"Even if first responders are better prepared, the public is way underprepared" in terms of being ready to respond to such an attack and deal with its environmental aftermath, the California lawmaker told the audience.

Al-Qaeda and other extremist organizations have expressed great interest in acquiring unconventional weapons such as a dirty bomb, which would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials. Harman cited several examples of such efforts, including one man's alleged attempt to acquire possible dirty bomb materials in Canada for use against the New York City subway system (see GSN, July 8).

"Worldwide, terrorists have also tried to buy radioactive material for a dirty bomb," Deutsche Presse-Agentur quoted Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev as saying this week.

Experts are unsure how many radiological sources exist at medical and industrial facilities and other locations around the world today, according to Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security. The latest estimate is that there are somewhere between 100,000 and 1 million worldwide, with 400,000 sources in China alone, he said yesterday during a telephone interview.

"People are focused on the big bang. They're not focused on what it means to have radiation dispersed all around an urban area," he told Global Security Newswire.

The extent of contamination would depend on a number of factors, including the size of the conventional explosive, the amount of radioactive material used, the means of dispersal and weather. Luongo said the cost of reclamation could run into the billions of dollars, depending on where the device is set off.

Containment of nuclear-weapon materials, such as highly enriched uranium or plutonium, is a cornerstone of the nonproliferation agenda President Obama laid out shortly after taking office. This spring he convened a two-day summit in Washington with nearly 50 heads of state and dignitaries to discuss ways to secure the world's loose nuclear material, though no attention was paid to radiological substances (see GSN, April 14).

This summer Harman and Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) wrote a commentary voicing concern over the latest in a series of funding reductions they claimed has led to a 50 percent funding decrease for efforts to secure U.S. radiological material sources (see GSN, July 22).

A U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration spokeswoman refuted that assertion, saying that while there is a slight decrease of $2.9 million, or roughly 5.5 percent for 2011, the agency's full five-year budget request includes dramatic increases in nuclear nonproliferation programs.

"What keeps me up at night ... is the relative ease for making a dirty bomb," Harman said yesterday, calling such a device a "crude weapon" because it would require little technical expertise and assembly.

Hospitals and medical research facilities make daily use of "highly dispersible radiological materials" like cesium 137, she said, and "they are not adequately secured."

The granular substance has a half-life of 30 years and can bind chemically to concrete and asphalt, often becoming lodged in cracks in the surface. In some cases, demolition is the only way to remove the threat of contamination entirely.

The California lawmaker said Congress is poised to take action on this threat after last week's passage of the fiscal 2010 intelligence authorization bill. That measure, signed by Obama today, contains an amendment authored by Harman that would require the U.S. national intelligence director to consult with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to produce an intelligence report on the dirty-bomb threat to the United States.

"Obviously a report doesn't get us to a solution but it certainly will heighten awareness and update our knowledge on this," she told the audience.

The commission is assigned to regulate the use of radioactive materials and administers more than 21,000 licenses for such substances. The agency requires operators to secure materials against theft or unauthorized use.

While the commission's security efforts overall have been strengthened since the Sept. 11 attacks, they are "a little bit limp given the urgency of the threat," according to Harman. She noted the agency has begun work that would possibly require producers of radiological machines, such as blood and research irradiators used in medicine, to replace the granular cesium 137 with a heftier, lump variation.

She also touted the completion of a pilot program by the National Nuclear Security Administration that saw the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia "harden" its eight facilities that house radiological materials for $250,000 per building.

The nuclear agency, a semiautonomous branch of the Energy Department, managed the effort through its Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which aims to track down, protect and eliminate potential radiological and nuclear-weapon materials. The part of program that deals with hardening the equipment containing radioactive sources is called the “In-Device Delay or IDD project," according to an NNSA official.

The initiative, operated in cooperation with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Homeland Security Department, works with cesium irradiator manufacturers to develop kits for the most widely used models of blood and research irradiators. The enhancements add a set of protection hardware, including hardened security plates and tamper-resistant fasteners, which greatly increase the time needed to remove radiological material without affecting the device's normal operation, use, and maintenance, the official said.

There are more than 800 large irradiators in the United States that are eligible for kit installation; in the past three years the threat reduction program has retrofitted 215 of those machines, according to the agency official.

Harman said it would cost about $125 million to lock down all radiological sources at the 500 major metropolitan hospitals in the country.

"It's really just a matter of hardening the machines, setting up a liaison with local law enforcement, and then doing training" on the new security system, according to Luongo. He added that is was "remarkable" that the proposed effort was not included in the coming budget cycle.

"You will literally be leveraging a little over $100 million against hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in economic disruption," he told GSN. "That to me is a no-brainer."

Luongo said he suspects that if a radiological attack were successfully carried out inside the United States, all radioactive sources at every hospital in the country would be secured "right quick."

"But I'd rather not wait for that," he said.

Note to our Readers

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