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An Overview of Plausible Terrorist Events Involving Radioactive Materials Robert Emery, DrPH, CHP, CIH, CSP, RBP, ARM Executive Director, Environmental Health & Safety Associate Professor of Occupational Health Assistant Vice President for Research Administration

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an overview of plausible terrorist events involving radioactive materials

An Overview of Plausible Terrorist Events Involving Radioactive Materials

Robert Emery, DrPH, CHP, CIH, CSP, RBP, ARMExecutive Director, Environmental Health & SafetyAssociate Professor of Occupational HealthAssistant Vice President for Research Administration


An Overview of Plausible Terrorist Events Involving Radioactive Materials

Robert Emery, DrPH, CHP, CIH, CSP, RBP, ARM

The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston

Recent terroristic acts involving air piracy and biological agents indicate that domestic acts of terror involving radioactive materials may be a distinct possibility as well. As part of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health’s ongoing efforts to respond to these terroristic threats, this presentation will describe the foreseeable types of terroristic acts involving radiation. These include, in order of likelihood and plausibility: conventional explosives combined with radioactive materials (referred to as radiation dispersal devices, or ‘dirty bombs’), the use of conventional explosives at a nuclear facility, and the detonation of a tactical nuclear weapon. The effects and public health implications of each type of attack will be described, along with the anticipated emergency response measures, monitoring capabilities, and appropriate protective actions. The actions of a collaborative group of organizations in Houston, Texas to address these threats will also be described. A list of supplemental web based and text references will be provided and ample time will be allotted for questions, answers and discussion.

speaker biography
Speaker Biography

Dr. Robert Emery is the Executive Director of Environmental Health & Safety for The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and Associate Professor of Occupational Health at the University of Texas School of Public Health. Bob has over 20 years of experience in the field of health & safety and holds masters degrees in health physics and environmental sciences, and a doctorate in occupational health. Bob is unique in that he possesses national board certification and registration in the four main areas of health & safety; health physics [Certified Health Physicist, CHP], occupational safety [Certified Safety Professional, CSP], industrial hygiene [Certified Industrial Hygienist, CIH], and biological safety [Registered Biosafety Professional, RBP]. In March 2002, he completed the national board examination process for the Associate in Risk Management [ARM] designation. Bob is the author of many peer-reviewed articles on practical health and safety topics and makes frequent presentations on such issues at the local and national level. Bob also recently assumed the role of Assistant Vice President for Research Administration to coordinate the infrastructure in place to support the research enterprise for the Health Science Center

  • Describe the foreseeable terrorist threats that might involve the use of radioactive materials
  • Discuss the control measures currently in place to address these threats
  • Detail the actions undertaken to date in Houston, Texas to address this issue
valuable key resource
Valuable Key Resource
  • Information for this presentation drawn heavily from NCRP Report No. 138 Management of Terrorist Events Involving Radioactive Materials, issued 24 Oct 2001
a changing nuclear threat
A Changing Nuclear Threat
  • Historical Cold War focus on intercontinental missile delivery of nuclear warheads
  • During the later part of the 1900’s, U.S. civil defense efforts generally waned – public perception was:

ICBM attacks would not occur or would not be successful

Civilian protective efforts would be futile in event of

large-scale nuclear war

  • The outcome is that, as a country, we are not optimally prepared to adequately respond to the emerging threat of a terrorist attack involving radioactive materials
  • Now is the time to develop an understanding of this new threat.
unique features of a terrorist attack involving radioactive materials
Unique Features of a Terrorist Attack Involving Radioactive Materials
  • In order to understand the threat, we should first consider a conventional explosion:
    • Explosion, overpressurization, thermal energy
    • Casualties
    • Damage
    • Debris
    • Rescue of survivors
    • Psychological response
    • Immediate site secured as crime scene for forensics
explosive involving dispersal of radioactive materials
Explosive Involving Dispersal of Radioactive Materials
  • Now include radioactive material….
    • Explosion, overpressurization, thermal energy, radioactive contamination
    • Casualties and non-casualties potentially contaminated
    • Real threat to those not immediately injured
    • Debris exhibits an added threat
    • Possible large affected area
    • “Invisible” residual radiological threat could cause significant public response
    • Forensics complicated by contamination
explosion of a nuclear weapon
Explosion of a Nuclear Weapon
  • The actual fissioning or fusioning of a nuclear fuel source (a highly complex action):
    • Massive explosion, overpressurization, thermal, prompt and residual radiation energy
    • Massive casualties, particularly burns (fire and flash)
    • Casualties and non-casualties potentially contaminated
    • Real threat to those not immediately injured
    • Debris exhibits an added threat
    • Possible large affected area, even downwind (fallout)
    • “Invisible” radiological threat could cause significant public response
    • Forensics complicated by contamination
foreseeable threats involving radioactivity
Foreseeable Threats Involving Radioactivity
  • In rank order of probability
    • 1. Dirty weapon
      • conventional explosive dispersing radioactive sources
    • 2. Conventional explosive at “nuclear facility”
      • a dispersal event rather than a criticality, or nuclear fission event
    • 3. Tactical nuclear device
      • device capable of criticality, or fission
      • self-built or stolen
why are dirty bombs ranked first
Why are “Dirty Bombs” Ranked First?
  • Conventional explosives can be obtained from many sources
  • Although not as readily available, potential radioactive contamination sources could take several forms:
    • Examples: gauges, testing sources, waste materials
    • (note: sources not necessarily domestic)
  • High “population terror” potential, given public’s apprehension about radiation
  • Of 26 terror acts in US in past 22 years, 17 have involved explosives (
why aren t nuclear facilities ranked first
Why Aren’t Nuclear Facilities Ranked First?
  • Commercial nuclear facilities are guarded 24 hrs/day, 365 days/yr by heavily armed, well trained personnel
  • Security systems well coordinated with local, state and federal agencies
  • Plants occupy sites with buffer zones
  • Containment structures quite robust: 4-6 ft concrete, reactor vessels 9-12 inches thick
  • Other safety design features
what about tactical nuclear weapons
What About Tactical Nuclear Weapons?
  • Although small “backpack” devices have been developed, expected use unlikely given difficulties with obtaining, maintaining, and operating such devices
  • Nonetheless, in current climate, possibility of use exists, hence some discussion of effects and countermeasures is warranted
  • Detonation may not be limited to ground or underground bursts – elevated detonation in highrise building plausible
fbi functional approach to threats
FBI Functional Approach to Threats

Crisis Management

  • Addresses the causes of terrorism; identify, motivation, capabilities, weapons identification
  • Predominantly a law enforcement function, but warrants cooperation with other entities

Consequence Management

  • Addresses how events may affect public health, environment
  • Predominantly a health care/public health function, but warrants involvement with other entities

Theoretical defining moment between crisis management and consequence management is when a terrorist act is executed

crisis management for nuclear threats
Crisis Management for Nuclear Threats
  • Non-military actions essentially limited to law enforcement
  • Important to secure sources, report lost sources and suspicious activities
  • Event is somewhat like an earthquake, very difficult to predict at this point -- but nonetheless, consequence management is critical
example generic steps in terroristic acts
Form group, increase membership


Select weapon based on expertise

Select time, place


Move weapon to target

Terrorist egress?

Weapon activated

Media attention

Claim of responsibility

Reduced public support of government

Example: Generic Steps in Terroristic Acts
consequence management issues
Consequence ManagementIssues 
  • Factors complicating nuclear threats
    • Law enforcement interests
    • Near Term and Long Term Public Health and Safety
    • Possible mass casualties and infrastructure damage
    • Psychological impacts
    • Environmental concerns
what does ncrp recommend
What Does NCRP Recommend?
  • Prevention, education
  • Monitoring at any explosion
  • Clear emergency command and control system
  • Clear communication channels
  • Address psychosocial effects
  • Prepare for medical response
  • Exposure control and guidance
  • Late phase consideration
a note about psychological preparations
A Note About Psychological Preparations
  • Learning about what could happen
  • The more known about possible dangers and fears, the more rational the response, the greater the chances of survival and recovery
conventional terrorist explosion is it dirty
Conventional Terrorist Explosion: Is It “Dirty”?
  • Emergency responders should always perform monitoring at site for various types of radiation emissions
  • If radiation detected, establish appropriate exclusion zones, handle casualties accordingly
  • Smoke may contain radioactive materials, so respiratory protection necessary
  • Secure area
  • Notifications for added assistance and controls
  • Population doses likely very low
explosion at a nuclear facility
Explosion at a Nuclear Facility
  • Examples include a nuclear power facility, radioactive waste site, or nuclear weapons facility
    • Emergency responders would be prepared and expect to perform monitoring at site
    • Many existing monitoring capabilities
    • If release detected, plans enacted, exclusion zones established, notifications made, casualties handled accordingly
    • Monitoring for offsite releases and meteorological conditions
    • Population doses projected to be low given existing controls in place
nuclear weapon detonation
Nuclear Weapon Detonation
  • Assumed to be a single, low yield device (20 kT)
    • Blast – overpressurization, accelerated debris
    • Heat – intense fireball, ignite materials far from center
    • Initial radiation – prompt emission of high radiation levels (EMP)
    • Residual radiation – activation products and contamination, fallout dependant on environmental conditions
    • Crater formation – large amounts of ground displacement
    • Ground shock – disrupt utilities, damage structures
explosion of a nuclear weapon23
Explosion of a Nuclear Weapon
  • Assume a 20 kT ground burst
    • 180 ft radius crater
    • Within ½ mile, 50% population fatalities from debris impact
    • Within 1.8 mile radius, 50% population fatalities from thermal burns
    • Within 1 mile radius, 50% population fatalities from immediate radiation exposures
    • Within 7.7 mile radius, 50% population fatalities from rad exposures in first hour
    • For purposes of comparison, 40 acres is approximately a circle with a radius of approximately 750 ft
radiation effects
Radiation Effects
  • Acute (immediate) and chronic (long term) effects
  • Acute effects
    • <100 rem
      • no immediate effects
    • 100-200 rem
      • Mild nausea, vomiting
      • Loss of appetite
      • Malaise, fatigue
    • 200-400 rem
      • Nausea universal
      • Hair loss
      • Diarrhea, fatigue
      • Hemorrhages in mouth, subcutaneous tissues, kidneys
radiation effects25
Radiation Effects
  • Acute effects (con’t)
    • 400-600 rem
      • Mortality probability 50%
    • 600-1,000 rem
      • Bone marrow destroyed
      • GI tract affected
      • Internal bleeding
      • Survival dependant upon prompt medical intervention
    • >1,000 rem
      • Rapid cell death
      • Internal bleeding, fluid loss
      • Death likely within hours
radiation effects26
Radiation Effects
  • Chronic effects
    • Possible effects on immune system
    • Possible increased risk of cancer (estimates vary with rate of delivery of dose. For acutely delivered doses, 1 x 10-3 increased cancer fatalities per rem)
    • Possible damage to reproductive systems can result in mutations passed on to subsequent generations
    • Psychological effects
emergency medical response
Emergency Medical Response
  • A significant challenge (Hiroshima 20 kT airburst)
    • 45,000 deaths first day, 91,000 injured.
    • of 45 hospitals, only 3 left standing
    • of 298 physicians, only 28 uninjured
    • of 1780 nurses, 1654 were casualties
  • On-scene triage: wounds, burns, exposure, contamination
  • Radiological assessment of patients with and without immediately observable injuries
  • Decontamination
  • Pharmacological protection for fallout?
monitoring doses
Monitoring Doses
  • Since radiation is invisible to human sensory systems, monitoring capability is key
  • Portable survey meters

measure radiation intensity in the form of a rate (R/hr), like a vehicle speedometer

typically high and low range

high range 0-500 R/hr (CDV 715, 717, 720)

low range 0-0.050 R/hr (CDV 700)

  • Personal dosimeters

Record total dose accumulated, like a vehicle odometer

CDV 730 (0-20 R), CDV 740 (0-100 R), CDV 742 (0-200 R)

monitoring doses29
Monitoring Doses
  • Effective monitoring allows persons to find areas of lowest dose, thus minimizing exposure risks
    • Sources of radiation exposure
    • Sources of contamination
  • Basic exposure minimization rule:
    • Time, distance, shielding
  • Basic contamination control rule:
    • Get it off, and keep it out (inhalation, ingestion)
protection survival items
Protection/Survival Items
  • Awareness of proactive techniques
  • Awareness of shelter locations, options
  • Portable radio, batteries, writing materials
  • Flashlights, candles, matches, stove
  • Clothing, including protection from rain
  • Sleeping gear, sleeping bag, blankets
  • Non-perishable food
  • Medical first aid supplies
protection survival items con t
Protection/Survival Items (con’t)
  • Insect netting, spray
  • Tools: shovel, pick, pliers, etc.
  • Water: containers, plastic sheeting purification systems
  • Protection of peacetime valuables: cash, securities, important papers, jewelry, others?
what would make houston texas be a possible target
What Would Make Houston, Texas be a Possible Target?
  • Population
  • Key national oil refining resource
  • Key national port facility
  • Facilities of iconic value
accomplishments to date
Accomplishments to Date
  • Formation of ad hoc STC HPS committee, Dr. Jon Poston (NCRP Report 138 member) to speak at May meeting
  • Open forum presentation at Houston VA Medical Center, with representatives from City of Houston and Texas Department of Health Bureau of Radiation Control
  • Academic lectures at School of Public Health
  • Initiated effort to create state database for lost sources
  • Video conference presentation to entire University of Texas System
    • Creating central inventory of monitoring capabilities
  • Similar presentations to:
    • Professional organizations (e.g. GCS-AIHA, Buffalo Bayou Chapter of the Academy of Certified Hazardous Materials Managers)
    • Local companies (e.g El Paso Energy Corp.)

Summary of Reported Incidents in Texas from 1988-1997

Unauthorized Source


Unauthorized Release



Unauthorized Storage









Uranium Spill




Badge Overexposure

Source Stolen



Source Lost




Source Found

Elevated Bioassay



Source Fire

Equipment Damaged



Source Downhole


Improper Storage

Source Disconnect



Improper Transport

Safety Violations





Radiation Injury

Leaking Source










near term plans
Near Term Plans
  • Capture Houston VA seminar content on video for web distribution
  • Development of other educational curricula for public consumption – for example, clarification about shelter in place
  • Invited participation and oversight of mock dirty bomb drill with City of Houston Fire Department
  • Presentation to CRCPD, feedback
  • Modification of radiation safety training courses to include terrorism issues and security matters
  • Creation of grant SPH proposal for NIOH/CDC
so what can be done
So What Can be Done?
  • Be alert, monitor developments, secure sources
  • National database for lost sources?
  • Educate (or re-educate) ourselves
    • Effects
    • Protective measures
    • Places of refuge
  • Develop an understanding of existing resources, contingency plans, supplies
  • Drills and practice

Web References/Resources

  • Center for Defense Information available at
  • Office of Technology Assessment: The Effects of Nuclear War, May 1979, available at
  • Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute, available at
  • Texas Division of Emergency Management at
  • Texas Department of Health Bureau of Radiation Control at
  • Health Physics Society at
  • South Texas Chapter of the Health Physics Society at
  • Texas Public Health Training Center at

Text References/Resources

  • NCRP Report No. 138 Management of Terrorist Events Involving Radioactive Materials, October 2001. available at
  • Glasstone, S., Dolan, P.J. The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, Third Edition. U.S. Dept of Defense and US Dept of Energy, 1977, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, available at
  • Landesman, L.Y. Public Health Management of Disasters, The Practice Guide. American Public Health Assoc. 2001, Washington, DC, available at
  • Schull, WJ Effects of Atomic Radiation: A Half Century of Studies from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Wiley-Liss, 1995.