AAAS Panel Explores U.S. Readiness For
Terrorist “Dirty Bomb” Attack
The scenario was ominous: A shadowy band of terrorists had smuggled
a small amount of radioactive material into the U.K. and was racing to
assemble a pair of “dirty bombs” for detonation in London.
Meanwhile, acting on vague tips and uncertain intelligence, the British
government was racing to stop them.
Panelist Charles D. Ferguson
This was the central plot of the recent HBO film “Dirty War,”
and after a showing at AAAS, a panel of experts said the threat laid out
in the film could be credibly applied to the United States. Just as the
British government as depicted in the film was unprepared, they said,
so is the U.S. government.
“It’s all too real,” said panelist Charles
D. Ferguson, a science and technology fellow at the Council on Foreign
Relations. “[It] might be all but inevitable that someday we would
see this kind of event in the United States.”
Panelist Amy E. Smithson
“One thing we’d all better get a grip on: People are going
to die in this,” added Amy
E. Smithson, a senior fellow in the International Security Program
at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). “We
live in a society of almost infinite vulnerability.”
War” was released in 2004 and has been shown on BBC, HBO and
PBS. The principal themes have become broadly familiar since the terror
attacks of 11 September 2001: Islamic terrorists, seeking to deliver a
lethal strike against one of the capitals of the Western world, patiently
plan and organize an attack using relatively crude conventional bombs
that will spread radioactive dust over a large swath of London. And investigators,
aided in part by colleagues of Islamic faith and a tipster from Middle
Eastern community, work desperately to track them down.
But within that drama, the filmmakers pose troubling questions about
our readiness for a terrorist “dirty bomb” strike. Are police
and firefighters prepared and equipped for such an attack? Are local hospitals
prepared to decontaminate and treat thousands of people who might need
care immediately after such an attack? And are citizens generally prepared
to endure such an attack?
The conclusion of the filmmakers is that we are not ready.
London firefighters go through preparation exercises, but they serve
more to reassure the public than to actually prepare them for catastrophe.
When the terrorists successfully detonate one of the bombs, confusion
and panic reign. Firefighters are able to enter the scene only at great
risk to their own lives. Police are overwhelmed trying to seal the contaminated
scene and to keep victims from leaving it. The victims — injured,
in shock and profoundly frightened — rebel against restrictions
that keep them at scene and prevent most from getting immediate medical
care. And in the aftermath, much of London is rendered uninhabitable for
The 14 November showing of “Dirty War” was the latest in
a recent series of lectures and press briefings on security issues organized
Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.
“While our primary mission is to deliver objective scientific analyses
of security problems to policy makers such as the Administration and Congress,
we are also working to inform the public about these issues,” said
center Director Norman Neureiter. “We believe that a well-informed
public is better prepared to deal with these sorts of events if and when
they occur, and is better able to interact with the government both before
and during crisis situations.”
The center plans to have public programs in Washington every four to
six weeks to assess present security challenges and how to deal with them,
At the “Dirty War” panel discussion, both Smithson and Ferguson
found points in “Dirty War” that seemed incredible or inaccurate.
Yet both said that its depiction of the attack and aftermath was fundamentally
Inevitably, they said, we must learn to live with risks. But that means
preparing as effectively as possible for terrorism-related disasters.
Both questioned whether the U.S. government and governments at local levels
Ferguson, discussing prevention of such attacks, said that of the millions
of sources of radioactive material used globally, thousands could fuel
potent dirty bombs. Such high-risk sources range from elements used in
cancer treatment around the world, for example, to military-related “orphan
sources” in the nations of the former Soviet Union.
While hundreds of these sources in the former Soviet Union have been
secured, he said, hundreds more still need to be addressed. But he worries
that federal efforts to do that collaborative work will be undermined
as the U.S. Congress looks for funds to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane
Smithson, who has worked closely with firefighters and other first-responder
groups, said the movie posed just a few of the thousands of possible attack
scenarios that local communities might have to respond to. But they are
strapped for funds and expertise, she said, and the federal government’s
leadership on the issue has faltered.
As in the movie, realistic emergency response exercises are "few
far between," she said. In the immediate aftermath of an attack,
first-responders will be required to make some critical decisions on high-risk
rescue efforts, quarantines and treatment for the injured.
“These will be excruciating circumstances for people who are trying
to save your life,” she said.
According to Smithson, hospitals could be the Achilles’ heel in
a dirty-bomb attack with mass casualties and broad exposure to radiation.
Because privately owned hospitals compete within a community, and because
many are financially struggling, they may be reluctant at present to invest
in emergency response training and supplies and may not be prepared to
coordinate their actions in the event of an attack.
“I think this film leaves us at the hardest part…. How do
you clean up that central part of London?” Smithson asked. “I
give you Katrina as exhibit A as to whether or not we’re prepared
to do that.”
One lesson of Hurricane Katrina may be that much of the preparation for
disaster — and response to it — will fall to local governments.
And that, Smithson said, raises a sensitive question: “Are you prepared
to have your taxes raised locally in order to improve your preparedness?”
Edward W. Lempinen
29 November 2005