March 10, 2009 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security, Terrorism

Dirty Secrets About Dirty Bombs

It's an all-too likely scenario. Terrorists detonate a "dirty" bomb, an explosive device laced with radioactive material. Hundreds die -- mostly because responders won't enter the contaminated area for fear of falling victim themselves.

Thousands of "worried" well (folks afraid they might be sick) overwhelm local hospitals, leaving the truly injured without medical attention. The clean-up costs billions.

But here's the saddest part: most of the casualties and costs will be self-inflicted. By ignorance.

Most Americans know little about radiation risks. And most of what they do know is wrong -- thanks to exaggerated claims of scaremongers and anti-nuclear activists.

Here are some basic truths.

There is no such thing as "zero" radiation risk. But scientific findings regarding cancers attributable to "low" dose radiation exposure are all across the board. Faced with such extreme uncertainty, government safety regulators weigh heavily on the side of caution -- restricting allowable exposures for nuclear power plant workers, for example, to levels far lower than the natural radiation bombarding frequent flyers at high altitudes.

Guidelines governing dosage rates for emergency responders -- the firefighters and cops who might be exposed to radiation in a dirty bomb attack -- reflect the same super abundance of caution. The practical effect, however, is to discourage trained rescuers from attempting to do their jobs. It makes no sense, yet that's what these guidelines do.

The Department of Homeland Security made a run at establishing revised, more realistic national guidelines during the Bush administration. It earned them a withering frontal assault from anti-nuclear activists (who hate the idea of building more nuclear power plants) intent on making radiation seem as scary and dangerous as possible. The department quickly abandoned its initiative.

And it gets worse. The federal government shells out billions in homeland security grants to local governments. Many use the money to buy their emergency responders protective suits to ward off chemical, biological, and radiological agents. But, the feds have no standards for radiological protection.

So, cities and counties wind up buying suits that would be virtually worthless in a dirty bomb attack -- despite the fact that light-weight materials that actually shield against radiation are now available.

The biggest problem posed by a dirty-bomb attack, however, is the panic factor. Dirty bombs are far from the most dangerous weapons in the terrorists' arsenal. But, the scare factor -- perpetually fanned by the anti-nuclear crowd -- can magnify the consequence immensely. What's needed is straight talk.

For starters, the government needs to do a much better job communicating to Americans about the real risks and how to reduce them. In the event of a dirty bomb, for example, it's possible to avoid potentially deadly contamination simply by covering exposed parts of the body and ensuring that smoke, dust, and debris don't get near the eyes, nose, or mouth.

We can teach people how administer first-aid. We can explain how to document personal experiences during a disaster, so later doctors can conduct effective long-term monitoring to identify latent health risks.

What we should not do is be stupid. Don't let people scare us with exaggerated tales of radiation risks, and don't believe there is nothing we as citizens can do to deal with the threat.

Americans are not a bunch victims waiting to happen. We are a free people who ought to take responsibility for taking care of ourselves.

James Jay Carafano is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and the author of GI Ingenuity: Improvisation, Technology

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First Appeared in The D.C. Examiner