Thursday, November 17, 2005
We have no greater fear than a terrorist who is inside the United States with a nuclear weapon. The consequences of such an attack would be catastrophic for our people, for our economy, for our liberties.
— Thomas Kean, chairman of the Sept. 11 commission quoted 11/14/2005
It is probably nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence that Homeland Security released its report on what to do in the event a terrorist explodes a dirty bomb on our shores while the consequences of Hurricane Katrina were still in the national consciousness. Had the report appeared in the Onion the reader would have thought it a marvelous piece of satire believing that not even the Bush administration could be that dumb. Instead, contents of the not yet released report appeared in the New York and Los Angeles Times and repeated reading convinced the reader that, as usual, the administration does not disappoint. It is as dumb as it appears to be.
Two important lessons are to be learned from the report. The kind of response to a dirty bomb will be based upon the cost of remediation and cost will determine what levels of radiation are considered acceptable for the citizenry. As Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Edward McGaffigan explained, “we don’t have access to al-Qaida’s pockets to finance a half billion dollars cleanup. We have to do something and do it as best we can.” Whereas California can force the operator of a nuclear power plant to set aside funds to pay for remediation in the event of a disaster, the government cannot, for obvious reasons, force a terrorist to do the same thing. As a result, Mr. McGaffigan and the report conclude, certain compromises in public health must be made. One of those compromises is determining acceptable levels of exposure to radioactivity.
Whereas the government has specific guidelines in place for acceptable levels of radiation for workers in industrial settings or for people living near nuclear plants or hazardous waste sites, the Homeland Security people don’t believe such rigorous standards should apply to a dirty bomb attack. According to the report, the government must “balance protection with other important factors.” For that reason the guidelines permit “continued shipment, sale and consumption of contaminated food and drinking water for an ‘intermediate’ phase that could last a year or more.” It says that if only a small area is affected “it might reasonably be expected that a complete return to normal conditions can be achieved within a short period of time. However, if the impacted area is very large, then achieving even very low criteria for remediation of the entire area and/or maintaining existing land uses may not be practicable.”
The report sensibly suggests that government should balance “the public health risk against the value of a highway or crucial transportation structure or of a high-profile place.” If local government had budgeted for a major highway improvement at the same time as a dirty bomb was exploded, for example, local officials might decide that a higher level of exposure to radiation would be OK for its citizens if the result was the highway project could continue as planned. A side benefit of that decision would be that with its population exposed to a high level of radiation, fewer people would be around to use the highway and it could, therefore, be a more modest project than before the citizenry had been exposed to what had been considered lethal doses of radiation when health rather than cost effectiveness was the applicable criterion.
Those finding the report wanting will be pleased to learn that its recommendations are not the last word, more especially if they were impressed with the post Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. According to the New York Times: “Officials say that in the days or weeks after an attack with a dirty bomb . . . officials at all levels of government and members of the public will discuss what standards to use.”
Those who watched officials at all levels of government and members of the public discuss what to do after Hurricane Katrina visited New Orleans may be somewhat less than sanguine at the thought of Homeland Security conducting post instead of pre-dirty bomb discussions. So will those who read the New York Times report about a simulated dirty bomb attack in Seattle in 2003. After the exercise was completed, officials concluded that one of the problems was “a lack of planning for long-term cleanup.” Had the Homeland Security people been aware of the Seattle experiment they might not have said standards should only be set after the event. They might have thought prophylactic planning more appropriate. Then again, maybe they wouldn’t. Planning ahead, though saving lives, would tarnish Homeland Security’s reputation as being marginally competent and all would agree its reputation is far more important than the few thousand lives its incompetence may some day cost us.