Innovative Approaches to Radiological/Nuclear Preparedness

by Erin Mohres & Darren Chen

Radiological and nuclear sources pose a wider variety of threats than many realize. By understanding the threat and leveraging federal requirements such as the Threat and Hazardentification and Risk Assessment (THIRA), emergency managers can better equip themselves and their communities to prevent, protect against, and respond to incidents related to these threats.

In 2013, truck drivers were stopped at a gas station along the highway in Mexico when they were assaulted, and their truck was stolen. Unknown to the thieves, the truck was transporting a teletherapy machine for treating cancer, from a hospital in Tijuana to a waste-disposal site. The machine contained a Category 1 cobalt-60 source. Mexican authorities began a search and reported the theft to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The radiological source was located days later in a nearby field; the capsule holding the source had not been opened, but it had been removed from its protective shielding. The strength of the cobalt-60 was reported to be 3,000 curies, strong enough to kill a person directly exposed to it. In this case, the thieves were located and determined not to have received dangerous exposure levels. The truck thieves in Mexico most likely had left behind the device after learning more about their stolen item, either from the warning labels or local news reports.

In the United States, public safety practitioners typically agree that consequences will be severe after an improvised nuclear device (IND) detonation, or even after a radiological dispersal device (RDD) detonation, but there is often skepticism about the likelihood of the threat. Such skepticism poses challenges to state and local preparedness efforts. Increased awareness about IND/RDD threat and other radiological/nuclear-related incidents, as well as the pursuit of some innovative approaches to preparedness, may shed light on this often-overlooked set of threats.

The Threat

Legal sources of radiation that go missing. Legal, regulated radiological sources are more abundant than many realize. Radiological sources in medicine often use cobalt-60, cesium-137, or iridium-192. Major construction sites, research universities, and agricultural sites may also use sources of radiation, such as nuclear gauges, irradiators, and even reactors. In the United States, such sources are regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (as defined in the IAEA’s Code of Conduct, Categories 1-5), based on their potential risk to human health if not managed appropriately.

Licensed radiological sources typically have specific security measures in place, but lost, stolen, or orphaned sources can be used in ways they were not originally intended, or can accidentally cause unintended consequences. Member countries voluntarily report thefts to the IAEA. Although such thefts are relatively rare (especially thefts of Category 1 sources), these thefts do not need to be prevalent to warrant prevention and protection measures.

Intentional exposure. A former agent of Russia’s KGB and its successor organization, the Federal Security Service, was granted asylum in the United Kingdom in 2000. He was a vocal critic of the Kremlin. In 2006, he suddenly became ill and entered a London hospital. His health steadily declined, and he died several weeks later. An investigation determined he had been poisoned by polonium-120, likely via a cup of tea. Traces of this radioactive material were discovered in London, Germany, Russia, and on passenger jets, resulting in hundreds of people needing (or wanting) to be tested.

This event has been unique in history, but its response required extensive public safety and medical resources from London authorities, including police to conduct searches and seal off a series of both public and private sites where radioactivity was found, forensics scientists to conduct sampling and testing, and public health and medical staff to test potentially exposed residents.

Insider threat. Simple online searches reveal a number of cases of insider threat in radiological/nuclear (rad/nuc) industries around the world, dating back to the 1970s, all of which could have had significant consequences. As both the threat itself and mitigation measures to combat such threats have evolved over time, a recent case at Los Alamos Plutonium Facility is interesting in its simplicity. In March 2009, a technician at the plant attempted to steal two ounces of gold used in research, which was worth approximately $2,000. The gold was contaminated with plutonium, and even though the technician attempted to decontaminate it, he set off a radiation portal monitor when trying to leave the plant. Had this attempted theft been successful, it could have posed a health threat to members of the public and required both a public safety and public health response. Fortunately, measures and processes were in place at this plant that prevented the successful theft.

Insider threat has become high profile in recent years. In fact, one of the outcomes of the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit that took place in April in Washington, D.C., was the Joint Statement on Insider Threat Mitigation, outlining a number of activities numerous countries will take “to establish and implement national-level measures to mitigate the insider threat.” The case studies above are simply a sample of some of the types of rad/nuc threat that may be faced by state and local authorities in the United States. Next, resources are described that may offer state and local government officials additional information on rad/nuc-related threat information.

Preparing for Rad/Nuc Events

In attempting to prepare for rad/nuc events, there is good news: a wealth of robust, technical resources is available to help agencies plan for and respond to such events. The challenge for state and local emergency management agencies is that navigating them and determining how to best incorporate them into local planning efforts is not always easy. It requires dedicated staff,eally with background knowledge in this area and with sufficient management expertise to leverage existing governance structures and operations in an environment of scarce resources.

Key guidance documents. Literature abounds on rad/nuc topics, and rad/nuc response is a capability of many hazardous materials teams. For planners and emergency managers building new programs, a few sources that may be particularly useful include:

  • Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation, 2nd edition, published in June 2010 by the Homeland Security Council Interagency Policy Coordination Subcommittee for Preparedness and Response to Radiological and Nuclear Threats. This document offers detailed planning information regarding shelter and evacuation, medical care, and population monitoring and decontamination. It organizes information by planning zones, helping emergency managers to understand what to expect and what actions to take within various distances of the nuclear detonation.

  • Response and Recovery Knowledge Product: Key Planning Factors – For Recovery From a Radiological Terrorism Incident, published in September 2012 by U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology. This document offers detailed planning information regarding public health and medical priorities, response operations, and waste management (among others). It also provides a detailed scenario based on a successful RDD detonation, along with narrative, map-based, and graphical information describing expected consequences.

  • Protective Action Guides and Planning Guidance for Radiological Incidents, published in March 2013 by the Environmental Protection Agency. This document offers guidance to federal, state, and local authorities to inform decision-making regarding protective actions for the public, such as the need to evacuate, to shelter-in-place, or to avoid consumption of potentially exposed food and water. It is organized around phases, such as the early or emergency phase (hours to days after the incident), the intermediate phase (weeks to months), and the late or recovery phase (months to years, including site-restoration and cleanup). It takes practical considerations into account while incorporating scientifically based recommendations.

Case studies and modelling tools. Despite real-world rad/nuc emergencies being less prevalent than other threats – for example, natural hazards, or even improvised explosive devices – a few well-documented case studies provide insights and important details into what public safety officials might expect should their jurisdiction experience such a disaster, whether intentional or accidental. For example, in 1985, a private radiotherapy institute in Goiana, Brazil relocated, but it left behind a cesium-137 teletherapy unit in its old building. The building was subsequently partially demolished. Later, two people searching the site for scrap metal found the unit, took part of it home, tried to dismantle it, and ruptured the source capsule. Parts were then sold to a junkyard, some of which glowed blue in the dark, making it of particular interest to friends and family. After several days of passing this material around, exposed individuals became ill. Investigatorsentified the problem and its source, but in the end, several people died, and many others were injured, exposed, and evacuated. Over 100,000 people were screened.

Many safety measures have evolved since (and partially due to) this particular case study, which is still an important part of the knowledge base for any planner focusing on rad/nuc incidents. The IAEA prepared an extensive report on this event in 1988 titled, The Radiological Accident in Goiana.

In addition to applying case studies, modelling the impacts of rad/nuc events in a particular jurisdiction can provide more-detailed information on consequences that might have to be addressed. This may be beyond the capabilities or resources of many local jurisdictions, therefore, some pre-prepared modelling based on a set of assumptions – for example, a 10-kiloton improvised nuclear explosion – is publically available. In addition, useful, actionable outputs from models and studies such as those conducted by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and its staff can be found online.

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office (DNDO). The volume, scope, and scale of rad/nuc planning and analysis resource material can be overwhelming, especially when an emergency manager is unclear how to judge the credibility of various sources, but help is available. The DNDO is a component of DHS and seeks to prevent nuclear terrorism by continuously improving capabilities to deter, detect, respond to, and attribute attacks, in coordination with domestic and international partners. It understands the enormous challenges faced by state and local agencies regarding rad/nuc threats – including potentially catastrophic consequences, coupled with significant resource constraints – and has invested in innovative approaches to support state and local agencies.

The Threat and Hazardentification and Risk Assessment

As outlined in DHS’s Comprehensive Preparedness Guide 201 (CPG 201, 2nd edition in August 2013), the Threat and Hazardentification and Risk Assessment (THIRA) is a four-step common risk assessment process that “helps the whole community . . . understand its risks and estimate capability requirements.” Typically, states, territories, and major urban areas are required to submit an annual THIRA to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), as well as tribes that receive homeland security grant funds. The THIRA may involve complex planning and analysis to be completed, including collection of input from multiple sets of subject matter experts and executive decision-makers.

DNDOentified that this requirement poses an excellent opportunity to support planning and analysis for rad/nuc scenarios. As such, it has developed a guidance document titled, Assessing the R/N Threat: Guidance to Support the Assessment of Radiological/Nuclear Threats for Inclusion in the THIRA. This document provides step-by-step instructions and examples to create rad/nuc scenarios and the corresponding core desired outcomes, impacts, targets, and required resources, organized by core capability, per CPG 201. DNDO also offers assistance directly to state and local agencies to explain, expand upon, and customize this guidance.

Fusion Center Support

Acknowledging that actionable rad/nuc threat information can be difficult to acquire, DNDO has engaged in multiple efforts to assist fusion centers and other state and local intelligence groups in accessing relevant real-world rad/nuc threat information and analysis. DNDO worked with the DHS Office of Intelligence and Analysis to prepare the State/Regional Threat Assessment report published on 4 September 2015 and is currently developing rad/nuc awareness training and technical assistance that will be available later in 2016. DNDO maintains the Radiological/Nuclear Detection Guidance for FEMA Preparedness Grants and manages the Joint Analysis Center, which provides threat information and products, among other assistance, to state and local partners.

For information about any of the DNDO products that support state and local rad/nuc preparedness described here, or for additional information about other DNDO support services such as training, exercises, and special event support, contact DNDO at

Erin Mohres is a safety and security director with CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization. She supports U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Domestic Nuclear Detection Office programs and other federal initiatives focused on state and local emergency management efforts. She was an emergency manager for Miami-Dade County and the City of Fort Lauderdale. She received her MA in International Relations from the University of Miami and her BA in Political Science from the University of Illinois.

Darren Chen is a branch chief with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, and is responsible for developing national programs supporting state, local, tribal, and territorial radiological/nuclear detection capabilities. He was previously responsible for developing the Department’s preparedness grant programs. He received his MA in homeland security and defense from the Naval Postgraduate School, his MS in crisis and emergency management from the George Washington University, and his BA in environmental sciences from the University of Virginia.