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San Diego Union-Tribune June 13, 2005

Disaster teams still addressing lessons learned in 2003 dirty-bomb drill

By Joe Cantlupe

WASHINGTON – It was known as Operation Purple Haze, with dozens of emergency preparedness officials playing out a terrorist-attack scenario in San Diego's East County in which 34 people were "killed" and hundreds of others were "injured."

They staged the computer-simulated July 2003 attack to see how ready they were for a "dirty bomb," a major concern of federal, state and local security officials since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The attack scenario was that an explosion spread low-level radioactive waste through the air.

Some things they did well; some not so well.

The exercise took place at the county operations center in Kearny Mesa, where 75 officials analyzed computer models and videos of a potential attack at a rock concert.

As they carried out the plans, the emergency response teams coordinated their staffs well among different agencies, but they didn't do as well in getting information to the public in a timely manner, said Debbie Steffen, director at the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services.

"The whole purpose was to show areas that we needed to improve on," said Steffen, who recently disclosed the scenarios and their results. There was little publicity about the drill at the time.

Dirty bomb. In the nearly four years since the Sept. 11 attacks, those have been the two words on everyone's lips in homeland security. Officials talk about it, think about it, worry about it and, like in the Purple Haze test in San Diego, they keep trying to plan for it.

Along the border near San Diego, Department of Homeland Security officials are doing more than thinking about it. They've been installing new radiation monitors.

Shaped like telephone booths, the monitors are "very sensitive" and designed to detect radioactive material being smuggled across the border, Bureau of Customs and Border Protection spokesman Vince Bond said.

Installations were completed last month at San Ysidro, with one on each side of the 24 northbound lanes and others at secondary inspection areas. Earlier, the monitors were set up at border crossings from Otay Mesa to Calexico.

Dirty bombs are a concern primarily because they are cheap to make and deploy. All that's needed is a conventional explosive like dynamite and a small amount of radioactive waste. The explosion would be used to spread the radioactive debris through the air in a densely populated area.

The result wouldn't be widespread fatalities. But an attack in an urban setting would require an evacuation of the affected area while it was decontaminated.

"It's just enormously hard to achieve massive destruction with the things. They can be massively disruptive," said John Pike of globalsecurity.org. "Very small amounts of radiation are sufficient to cause considerable amount of panic on the part of the public."

Radioactive material is stored at laboratories, food irradiation plants, oil-drilling facilities, medical centers and some dumps, and not all of it is well-guarded.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. officials were convinced that some sort of dirty-bomb attack was imminent. None was forthcoming, but the fear of an attack was never far from the minds of homeland security and law enforcement officials.

In spring 2002, alleged American al-Qaeda sympathizer Jose Padilla was arrested on suspicion of planning a dirty-bomb attack within the United States several months earlier.

U.S. intelligence agents in Afghanistan uncovered detailed al-Qaeda plans for a sophisticated version of a dirty bomb.

There also have been recent dirty-bomb scares.

In the fall, authorities in Boston investigated what they termed a possible nuclear-or dirty-bomb threat after a man calling from Mexico told California police he smuggled two Iraqis and four Chinese across the border. The incident was a hoax.

Last month, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, assembled dozens of employees and others in an auditorium to screen a film titled "Dirty Bomb."

The movie dramatized two disaster scenarios based on sophisticated models developed by a radiation experts. One involved detonation of a dirty bomb on a Washington subway and the other in Trafalgar Square in London.

The drill in San Diego County, Operation Purple Haze, focused primarily on communication planning after a simulated dirty-bomb attack, said Steffen, the emergency services official. The simulated attack wasn't widely publicized because it was considered an internal county drill, she said.

The workers involved in the 90-minute drill included some "sitting at their computers and making mock phone calls to hospitals," she said.

Overall, the county's alert notification system, in which county personnel inform one another about an attack, "worked fine," Steffen said.

"The second objective was to demonstrate the ability to coordinate all levels of public information," she said. "We don't feel that was demonstrated."

Steffen said they are still applying lessons from the exercise two years later.

Lessons also are still being drawn from an incident in Brazil in 1987. Scrap-metal scavengers took a canister of radioactive material, cesium-137, from an abandoned radiation-therapy clinic without knowing the material was radioactive. Children smeared the cesium on their faces because it glowed.

The exposure resulted in five deaths and 249 cases of radiation contamination.

Widespread panic is one of the major risks of a dirty bomb.

After the Brazil incident, about 100,000 people fled to a local soccer stadium for tests.

When experts discuss lost or missing radioactive materials, nearly all point to the former Soviet Union. Even the United States has had close brushes with missing radioactive equipment, including a cesium industrial gauge that was discovered at a scrap yard in North Carolina in the late 1990s.

Some experts also worry that the many facilities and sites storing radioactive material in the United States are not adequately protected.

Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission completed a National Response Plan in December to prepare local, state and federal agents to respond to a variety of attacks, it has yet to complete guidelines to deal with radiological attacks.

It is a year behind schedule, officials said.



Copyright 2005, Union-Tribune Publishing Co