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May 04, 2002
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Plan Urged for 'Dirty' Explosive

Radioactivity Could Spur Panic, Report Cautions

by Spencer S. Hsu, Washington Post

A private analysis conducted for Washington area government officials warns that a truck bomb laced with radioactive materials and detonated in downtown Washington could disable many of the region's emergency workers within days and trigger a spontaneous evacuation by fearful residents.

The report, prepared by the Center for Strategic and International Studies for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, concludes that police and fire agencies must develop plans to protect initial responders from radiation, stagger rescue crews to prevent overexposure and ensure that protective gear and equipment can be rushed in from regional sources.

It also suggests that authorities consider ways to exercise emergency powers quickly to prevent panic and recommends disseminating information in advance to educate the media and the public about the risks.

The center's study is based on the assumption that an attack with a "dirty bomb" -- a low-grade, relatively easy-to-assemble weapon that would scatter small quantities of radioactive material -- is more likely than the detonation of a stolen nuclear device, the release of smallpox or an attack on a nuclear power plant.

While a dirty bomb could kill people after prolonged exposure, federal officials have said, the broader impact would be psychological. As a result, planning for such an attack includes managing its after-effects.

The report was based in part on a March 21 workshop, in which the center posed a specific dirty-bomb scenario and asked local public safety officials to describe their probable responses.

A copy of the 13-page report summarizing the workshop findings was provided to The Washington Post by a person who believed it warranted public discussion. Center spokesman Jay C. Farrar confirmed the workshop but declined to comment.

"While we would all like to believe that the scenario described herein represents a remote possibility, the evidence points to the contrary," wrote report author Philip Anderson, senior fellow for homeland security initiatives at the center, a think tank that also conducts simulation exercises for government and industry.

"The presence of radioactivity was an issue that the participants clearly were not prepared to deal with," the report concluded. "The means to develop greater public awareness and acceptance of risks should be considered."

Michael C. Rogers, executive director of the council of 17 Washington area governments, cautioned that the seminar was not a full indicator of the region's readiness. Participants included about 40 representatives of area police, fire, emergency management and health agencies and utilities but not top-level decision-makers or their most expert aides, Rogers said.

Washington has conducted drills simulating a dirty-bomb attack with federal and local agencies. Peter G. LaPorte, director of the D.C. Emergency Management Agency, acknowledged the challenges posed by a dirty bomb, but he said authorities have "come a long way in preparing for them."

Federal officials have deployed radiation sensors around the capital, placed a commando unit on standby alert and tested scenarios based on a presumed attack by boat on the Potomac River or by truck on Interstate 95. It is believed that the al Qaeda terrorist network has acquired lower-level nuclear materials that can be scattered by conventional explosives.

Locally, the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department is spending $6 million in federal aid and will install radiation monitors in all its 34 firehouses by this fall. The department is buying protective equipment and hopes to train 1,200 fire and rescue workers for radiological hazards, an official said, although hazardous-material officers say they are still not well prepared for a dirty-bomb scenario. TheD.C. Department of Health is spending $12 million for a mobile laboratory, air-monitoring devices and personal protective equipment.

Fairfax County police and fire departments are receiving $12 million in federal aid, money that will be used to double the quantity and duration of protective gear for police, to 48 hours. Montgomery and Prince George's counties and other jurisdictions are receiving similar grants.

The center's scenario was based on a 4,000-pound bomb detonating in a bus parked at the Mall. The report said the radiation would contaminate about 20 percent of downtown but would present a long-term risk of increased cataract or cancer rates for only a few blocks around the blast site.

A low-level radioactive element could expose the first wave of police and fire crews beyond the maximum safe dosage in about one hour, and the time needed to detect and diagnose a radiological attack would require a second wave of responders to come to their relief, the report said. Recovery workers would need to replace equipment and protective suits at regular intervals, straining hazardous-material units at local agencies, it added.

The scenario raised complex issues of public and media reaction. First reports of the presence of radiation could trigger speculation about a fizzled nuclear device that could spread dangerous radiation in a five-mile radius, for example. Rapid delivery of radiological information from authoritative sources and accurate computer modeling might calm fears, the report said.

Legal and political authority also would be tested. Federal officials would have to decide quickly whether to evacuate downtown workers or to shelter them where they were. While the latter is preferred by experts to prevent the spread of contamination, the report said that police do not have authority to use force to prevent people from evacuating. A presidential declaration of martial law or a mayoral declaration of a state of emergency would take time, the report said.

A Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman who reviewed the report said the agency is working closely with the governors of Virginia and Maryland and with D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to respond to all threats and has a national capital region emergency response team available within two hours at all times.

"There is a possibility that something like this could happen in the District," the spokesman said. "We . . . certainly support the strengthening of all plans for any kind of terrorist threat in the District."






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