Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD) is any weapon that is designed to spread radioactive material with the intent to kill and cause disruption. RDD combines the conventional weapons with radioactive material together. This kind of weapon may not kill hundreds of people immediately, but it will cause psychological panic among people, especially in places with high population density. The Department of Homeland Security mentions that wind and precipitation might expand the dispersal of radioactive materials, broadening the affected areas. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission states that the contamination and anxiety caused by a RDD attack meet the major objectives of terrorists.
What is Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD)?
Radiological Dispersal Device is designed to release radioactive materials into a specific area. The media usually describe it as a “dirty bomb” or “dirty nuke”. “Dirty bomb” is one type of RDD that uses the explosion to release radioactive materials. Dirty bomb will cause physical injury to victims and will contaminate the local environment. This contamination easily triggers the panic of local residents, since the radiation can not be seen. If the government delays its reaction and emergency response to a dirty bomb attack, it might cause a chaotic and unstable situation.
A dirty bomb is not the only form of RDD. U.S. Department of Health and Human services provides other dispersal methods of RDD, such as placing radioactive materials in an open container on the street and using airplanes to deliver radioactive materials. The health and environment impacts of the RDD depend on the design of the device and the types of radiation. For example, using airplanes to drop radioactive materials results in a larger contaminated area compared with a small dirty bomb. Gamma and X-rays can travel long distance and penetrate human skin, and thus hurt people badly compared with Alpha radiation.
The most obvious difference between dirty bombs and nuclear bomb is that the nuclear bomb has nuclear chain reaction, while dirty bombs are more similar to conventional bombs. The power of a nuclear bomb is thousand to millions times that of a dirty bomb, since the nuclear bomb can destroy a city in a few seconds and spread radioactive dust to a large area. Although a dirty bomb is not as powerful as a nuclear bomb, a dirty bomb is easier to make and terrorists may have access to radioactive martials from labs of universities or hospitals in war areas.
The brief history of RDD attack
The first attempt of a RDD attack happened in 1995. The Chechen rebels claimed that they buried a container of radioactive materials in Izmailovsky Park of Moscow. These radioactive materials were traced to cancer treatment equipment. In 1998, 19 tubes of cesium ware stolen from the Moses Cone Memorial Hospital in North Carolina. The police inferred that the thief was trained to handle the cesium since the direct contact would have brought a serious injury to his body. After the loss, the hospital strengthened their security on radioactive materials. In 1998, a container of radioactive materials, which was attached to a mine, was buried near a railway line outside the Argun. It was discovered before its explosion.
In 2001, Jose Padilla was accused of planning to deliver a dirty bomb in an American city and was arrested in Chicago O'Hare airport. Before he was arrested, he had connection with Al Qeada and was trained in Pakistan. According to the overview RDD response report from Lessons Learned Information Sharing Program, during 2003 to 2005, at least 38 Alazan rockets (a type of Cold War-era, 82mm Soviet rocket) carried radioactive materials were available for sale in Trans-Dniester, which is a self-proclaimed republic near Ukraine. The website of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) shows that numerous radioactive materials were missing every year. For example, there are 153 incidents was reported to IAEA in 2013. Among them, missing radioactive materials in 7 incidents were identified as having great risks. More and more countries are working on nuclear studies, which brings the potential risk of uncontrolled management on radioactive materials. The information shows that it is important that we take the preparation and response to a RDD attack seriously.
The danger brought by the RDD attack
As the emergency preparedness guidance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security stated, the main purpose of RDD attack is causing economic disruption and fear. The RDD attack will bring economic disruption because the local government would have to spend considerable resources and time on post-attack recovery of environment and healing people who are exposed to radioactive materials. The immediate impact is that local people near the site of the attack might have physical injury, such as burning of skin and internal organs. In the long run, the local government has to deal with the dispersal of radioactive materials in water, air and soil. In addition, residue of the radiation may be left on the buildings and infrastructure near the attack site.
The psychological panic caused by a RDD attack is the another problem that need to be considered seriously. An article posted on Stratfor website states that the psychological panic is the biggest threat of dirty bombs. It is because dirty bombs are not likely to kill mass casualties, but people who live in the attacked places fear the spread of invisible radiation and may respond unpredictability. Scholars also point that the reason why citizens feel panic is that the invisible radiation makes them feel vulnerable and loss control of life. Thus, it is important for governments and related organizations to release credible information in time, and inform citizens on how to protect themselves.
The personal preparation and response of RDD attack
According to the emergency preparedness guidance from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, it is necessary for people to get some preparations before a RDD attack, so that they stay calm when accident happened. Similar as preparations for other natural disasters, people should make emergency supply boxes and family emergency plans. An emergency supply box usually contains some long term food, a radio, batteries and a flashlight. Family emergency plans includes details such as the location they can hide and meet after the attack. It is essential for them to be familiar with where nearby shelters are.
For people near the place of attack, they should leave the place of releasing radioactive materials as soon as possible. The two ways for people to protect themselves are preventing exposure to radiation and removal of radiation. In the aspect of preventing access to radiation, they can use tissues or damp clothes to cover their noses and mouths, to prevent the inhalation the radiation. People can also go into a building without opening windows and doors and wait for the instruction of authorities. In the aspect of removing radiation, people can take off contaminated clothes and put the clothing into a sealed bag. People can wash their skin to clean radiation but they need to make sure radioactive materials will not enter their mouths.
The agencies preparation and response of RDD attack
As the local governments or agencies that deal with the RDD attack, they need to provide emergency response and long-term recovery for an event like this. The Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response published a playbook which mentioned four phases to deal with a radiological attack. The first phase is Pre-Incident, which requires the local law enforcement and FBI closely monitor events and get advance preparations for possible attacks. During this phase, agencies can publish brochures to provide suggestions when people meet emergency situations. Agencies or organizations can deliver recommendations approved by experts and first responders. They can also test their communication systems before the attack, in order to make sure availability and functionality of the systems.
The second phase is the first 24 hours after the RDD attack. During the second phase, the main strategy is assessing the events, saving maximal number of victims, and treating those affected. The third phase is 24 hours to 72 hours after the RDD attack. During this phase, the main strategy is providing surge capacity, rapidly deploying assets to save lives and minimizing adverse health effects. The last phase is 72 hours to two weeks after the attack. During the last phase, the main strategy is creating an implementing long-term recovery and rebuilding local or regional public heal infrastructure.
The long-term recovery is usually very complex which needs to involve the efforts of local, federal, and state governments and agencies. It is important to know that the recovery of contamination might never reach the pre-incident levels. People usually have a misconception that the decontamination means there are no radioactivity at all. But, in the practical level, the goal of decontamination is reducing the radioactivity to a normal level rather than getting rid of it.
According to the RDD incident response report from Lessons Learned Information Sharing Program, the design of decontamination should be adjusted based on the locations, types and distribution of radiation. The contamination might be attached to the external surfaces of buildings and internal infrastructure. The transportation and water supplies also need to be tested to assess if the level of radiation is over standards. Some radioactive materials might penetrate into soil which needs to be dumped when its level of radiation is overweight. The radioactive materials usually are liquid spilled or in solid form, therefore the design of recovery needs to consider part of radioactive materials might be absorbed by some porous materials, such as concrete, wood and plants. The distribution of radioactive materials in a RDD attack tends to be uneven because wind and rain have influence on the spread of radiation. The recovery design needs to cover not only the concentrated radiation places but also other places of relatively lower level radiation.