Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDD): A Legitimate Threat Without The Fanfare

While everyone has heard of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) either through the news, movies, or personal experiences, a surprisingly small number have heard of Radiological Dispersal Devices (RDD).  An RDD combines a traditional explosive with radioactive material and has the potentiality to contaminate an entire work environment.

RDDs and other similar radiological threats are just as destructive and expensive as IEDs, albeit in different manners. Prior to 9/11, response preparedness focused significantly on RDDs as a legitimate threat. To first responders, especially in metropolitan areas, RDDs were a big fear.  For decades emergency response plans accounted for radiological threats and this drove procedures and policies to prepare to mitigate such threats. 

Radiation sources, not surprisingly, are all around us whether for medical applications, imaging systems, and even smoke alarms.  Blood transfusions and cancer treatments in hospitals around the world use Caesium-137, Cobalt-60, and Iridium-192 to save lives.  With so many radiation sources available, it takes herculean efforts to keep the “bad guys” from procuring these isotopes. Generally, radiation threats are either deployed via a dispersal device or a placed device. The scale of lethality is based on the duration of exposure.

Dispersal devices such as explosives force first responders to find all threat sources throughout the blast and fragmentation zone. This makes mitigation expensive and time-consuming. The highest risk to people, beyond any explosive damage, is inhaling or ingesting radiation.  These tend to be high profile events, quickly engaging the press and public in the threat mitigation equation and increasing the scrutiny on decision makers. The spectrum of delivery ranges from dropping sources out of an aircraft to the explosive spreading over a designated site.  The threat is generally quickly identified, categorized and mitigated through an emergency management program.  While this method of attack is spectacular, it is also short-lived compared to one that causes long term health concerns and extensive remediation efforts.

Radiation placed inside of a facility and left to contaminate through its natural decay processes causes a very different set of reactions.  The facility’s normal infrastructure serves as the method of transmission. Something as benign as an air conditioning system becomes extremely effective at moving radiation around an entire building.  Without a detonation or some violent act initiating the attack, there is no reaction from those in the area. The longer an uncontained source sits in place, the more lethal the health issues to those exposed become. A long, drawn-out attack drives up the cost of remediation and the permanence of the damage exponentially.  Unfortunately for the assailants, it does not bring the initial media response and long term outcomes are realized at a much later date.  Once exposed as an attack in the press it can produce years of public relations ammunition either due to ongoing health issues or remediation requirements, resulting in permanent facility shut-down in the worst case.

Overall the probability of a radiological attack is low, however, when balanced against the loss of life and the severity of impact, remediation planning is a small price to pay to mitigate the potential threat.  Homeland Security, The Department of Energy, FEMA and other government agencies have compiled detailed RDD Response Guidance.  It is a useful tool reviewing your organization’s preparedness and lays out a pathway to success for planning against an attack.  The guidance explains, in general terms, what assets are required and at what echelons decisions are made throughout the process.  Each organization is different and requires both independent and internal reviews of where these threats fit into the response plan.  Private companies have a much different role than a city, state or federal authority but all play a part in planning and response efforts. Early prevention is helping forward-leaning organizations learn their roles in an RDD response to decrease the loss of life and support a quicker return to normal operations.

https://www.dhs.gov/publication/st-frg-rdd-response-guidance-planning-first-100-minutes

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