Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

Homeland Security, Radiological Terror, and Countering Public Fears

| Sep. 12, 2016

Steve Brill’s terrific article “Are We Any Safer?” – the cover of the September Atlantic – describes both the progress and the follies of homeland security in the 15 years since the tragedy of 9/11.  Brill provides a readable (and highly opinionated) overview of vulnerabilities that have been largely fixed, areas where hundreds of billions have been wasted, and remaining gaps.

One of the gaps that concerns him most is the ongoing danger of radiological terrorism.  Brill notes the long-standing dispute in which the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) thinks radiological sources require a good bit more security than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is willing to require its licensees to provide, leaving many dangerous radioactive sources far less secure than they ought to be.  NNSA has offered help to facilities such as hospitals to enable them to voluntarily beef up security more than the NRC requires, but Brill reports that only 796 of the 1,503 hospitals using dangerous radiological material in the United States have gone ahead with the NNSA-funded upgrades.

There are a number of steps that can and should be taken quickly – not only in the United States, but around the world.  Where a radiological source is part of a large machine such as a blood irradiator, the machines should be modified so that terrorists cannot take the source out without special equipment available only to the company technicians (something NNSA has been working with the companies that make such machines to do).  Every dangerous source should have a camera on it and an alarm going to the local police, and should be in a locked room.  Given the huge number of sources in use, and the open environments where they are used, it will never be possible to provide them with the kind of security that should be in place for highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium that could be used to make a nuclear bomb – but there’s a great deal more that states around the world can do to reduce the risk, for relatively low cost.  And because plausible security measures for many of these sources will always be limited, it makes sense to replace the most dangerous sources with less dangerous technology wherever possible – such as machines that only create a beam of radiation when their electrical switch is flicked on. 

Brill also highlights another important issue.  The radiation that might be spread by a substantial “dirty bomb” would certainly be a public health hazard – though in most scenarios it is likely that few, if any, people would actually be killed, beyond those killed by whatever explosives might be used to spread the radioactive material.   The issue would be less acute, deadly doses of radiation than small doses over a wide area.  Hence, much of the terrorizing effect of such a “weapon of mass disruption” would come from the public fear of radiation, rather than its actual health effects.  An effective public education campaign on the real effects of radiation before an attack (or a nuclear accident) occurred could reduce the terror such an event would cause – and possibly reduce the chances terrorists would choose to try it, by making it seem less valuable in achieving the terrorists’ goals.  The reality is that natural radiation is all around us, and varies considerably from one place to another – residents of Denver, whose soils and rocks contain more radium, and whose higher altitude means fewer of the cosmic rays are blocked by the atmosphere, get about four times the annual radiation dose most other U.S. residents get.  If Boston were attacked, there would be people fleeing from areas where their doses would be less than residents of Denver receive today – yet we also know that there are very real health effects of evacuation, which creates intense stress, and separates people from their doctors, jobs, and friends.  (Deaths shot up among nursing home residents evacuated after Fukushima, for example – few of whom would likely have suffered seriously from the radiation released, given their advanced age.)

Given the intense fear and controversy surrounding radiation, however – and the strong belief in many quarters, grounded in part in past experience, that both government and industry organizations will lie about it – how could a public education effort that would really make a difference be organized?  How would the scientific dispute over the effects of low-dose radiation be addressed?  What would a public education campaign that worked actually look like, and who could carry it out?  Those questions, so far, remain unanswered.

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For Academic Citation: Bunn, Matthew.Homeland Security, Radiological Terror, and Countering Public Fears .” Nuclear Security Matters, September 12, 2016, https://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/publication/homeland-security-radiological-terror-and-countering-public-fears.

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