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FAS Public Interest Report
The Journal of the Federation of American Scientists
Summer 2003
Volume 56, Number 2
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Front Page
Nuclear Terror: Ambling Toward Apocalypse
21st-Century Physics: Grand Challenges
The Afghan Housing Crisis: Can New Technology Make a Difference?
Congress Permits Research on Smaller Nuclear Weapons
Molecular Manufacturing: Start Planning
Progress Report for FAS Learning Technology Initiatives
Challenging Conventional Wisdom on Arms Exports
How Well did TOPOFF2 Prepare Us?

How Well did TOPOFF 2 Prepare Us for Mitigating the Effects of a Dirty Bomb Attack?

by Jaime Yassif

The Department of Homeland Security conducted a simulated dirty bomb attack on Seattle as part of its TOPOFF 2 exercise that lasted for one week in mid-May. The exercise, the second in a congressionally mandated series that aims to troubleshoot and improve our ability to respond to a radiological attack, has been lauded by public officials for providing valuable lessons, but criticized by others who claimed that it was too scripted and too costly. Overall, the TOPOFF 2 dirty bomb simulation was successful at what it set out to do-namely reinforce emergency response capabilities. Its shortcomings have more to do with the aspect of radiological weapon mitigation that it left out-the longer term process of decontaminating and restoring urban areas to normal daily activity.

The most common critique of TOPOFF 2 has been that the exercise was too scripted. Emergency responders and participating federal, state and local officials knew weeks in advance the exact time and location of the mock radioactive "dirty bomb" detonation in Seattle, which allowed them ample time to study and practice for the simulation. In reality, critics argue, a bomb blast would be a surprise. Furthermore, senior decision makers such as the President, his chief of staff and his press secretary had made their decisions about the simulated attack ahead of time, and surrogates stood in for them during the simulation, issuing their 'decisions' from a playbook that was prepared in advance. This removed the element of decision-making under pressure, which critics claim should have been a component of the exercise.

Main site of simulated dirty bomb detonation. City of Seattle - Erik Stuhaug

While these critiques raise valid points and show that the Seattle dirty bomb simulation left room for improvement, TOPOFF 2 did provide valuable lessons about gaps in emergency response capabilities. In an interview with United Press International, Corey Gruber, the operation's associate director, said the most important difficulty identified by the exercise has been interagency communication. In addition to simple tasks, such as getting everyone on the same radio frequency, officials had to overcome communications challenges that arose when dozens of agencies, each with different sets of protocols and acronyms, tried to talk to each other and work together. Officials also learned that cordoning off a contaminated "hot zone" would have a profound effect on transportation, forcing buses to be rerouted around the area, commuter railways to be shut down and massive traffic backups on the local stretch of interstate highway. These lessons, along with mistakes made by emergency responders, helped accomplish precisely what the exercise was designed to do - identify weak points in the system so that they can be ameliorated.

The cost of the simulation-$16 million for the entire TOPOFF2 exercise-is also a source of contention. Some critics are questioning whether the expenditure was a worthwhile use of funds. However, it is important to bear in mind that in the context of Defense Department spending, this is a drop in the bucket. For a minute fraction of the $400 billion annual Defense budget, the TOPOFF2 exercise provided an effective means of reinforcing our consequence mitigation abilities in the event of a radiological or biological attack. Though the simulation left room for improvement, we should not be asking whether it was worth the money, but instead, why we are not conducting similar exercises for other types of threats.

The one aspect of the dirty bomb simulation that missed the mark was its limited time scope that only encompassed the first five days of the crisis. Many of the real difficulties of mitigating the effects of a radiological attack will come in the weeks, months and years after the event. Once the initial emergency phase passes, federal and local officials will still face the challenges posed by a public that is reluctant to return to their homes and offices. This could lead to a halt in daily commercial activity and steep drops in property values, ultimately resulting in severe economic damage. To minimize this potential damage, we should develop a comprehensive, long term decontamination strategy so it can be implemented as rapidly as possible in the event of an attack.

Getting off to a quick start with decontamination is crucial because it becomes more difficult with each passing week. Initially, the radioactive contamination will take on the form of fine dust particles loosely settled on the surfaces of buildings, streets and sidewalks. As time passes, these particles can be ground deep into porous surfaces or can react with organic compounds mixed in with chalks in concrete and petroleum derivatives in asphalt, making them much more difficult to remove. Removal of these firmly attached particles could require more invasive techniques such as the use of abrasives, chemical solvents and possibly the tearing up of streets and sidewalks.

In addition to easing the technical difficulties associated with cleanup, rapid decontamination will also reduce economic damage by restoring urban areas and facilitating the resumption of commercial activity.

Decontamination in the aftermath of a radiological attack will involve very different tasks than those required for the initial emergency response phase that was addressed by TOPOFF 2. The longer-term process of decontamination does not have to be executed with the same urgency, and therefore preparations can take on the form of planning, conducting studies and identifying useful technologies, as opposed to repeated drills and simulated scenarios of decision making under pressure.

At this point, the US does not have experience in decontaminating urban areas in the aftermath of a radiological attack. Our experience is limited to the decommissioning of industrial and government facilities, military decontamination exercises and cleanup efforts in the aftermath of the power plant meltdown in Chernobyl.

The national labs and private industry have developed a range of technologies that could be put to good use in urban decontamination. Though many of them were initially intended for small scale tasks, such as cleaning up laboratory hotboxes and nuclear reactors, some methods could be adapted for larger scale operations. We need to identify existing technologies that are appropriate for urban-scale decontamination and adapt them for these purposes.

Resources should also be allocated for developing new technologies that could be useful for urban-scale operations, such as alpha detectors that can scan large areas rapidly and effectively. Alpha rays are difficult to detect because they do not travel long distances, and they can be shielded by a barrier as thin as a sheet of paper. As a result, current detectors require slow, repeated scanning within close proximity of the source.

Still, no amount of technology can solve this problem unless it is integrated into a comprehensive decontamination plan that lays out which methods will be used in which situations, which tasks will be prioritized and who will oversee and carry out operations. TOPOFF 2 demonstrated the utility of learning how the dozens of federal, state and local agencies involved in the first five days of a radiological attack will work together. The complex interagency relations that will come into play during longer term consequence mitigation should be worked out in a similar fashion.

TOPOFF 2 did set the stage for this type of planning, but more needs to be done. After the two initial days of activity in the field, three days were dedicated to a table-top exercise where participating officials focused on consequence mitigation strategies, and there was some discussion of the challenges posed by a contaminated water supply, sewer system and agricultural land. Participants also examined a range of existing radiation exposure guidelines-such as those provided by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency-to decide which standards to apply in mapping out areas that would require decontamination. But they did not look at how to implement these standards in carrying out a cleanup exercise. These exercises are a small step in the right direction, but the scope of consequence mitigation planning needs to be extended to the longer time scales of the weeks, months and possibly years that will be needed for full decontamination and economic recovery.

For additional information on this topic, see "U.S. Unprepared for 'Dirty Bomb' Aftermath", published in the April 28 issue of Defense News and available online at

Author's Note: Jaime Yassif is a program assistant with the FAS Strategic Security Project.