Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

November 7, 2011

The gathering Iranian nuclear storm

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on November 7, 2011

This week the IAEA is expected to release a new report on Iran’s past work in developing nuclear warheads:

A Western diplomat who has seen drafts of the report said it will elaborate on secret intelligence collected since 2004 showing Iranian scientists struggling to overcome technical hurdles in designing and building nuclear warheads. The scientists’ studies include computer modeling of warhead design and field-testing the kinds of high-precision conventional explosives used to trigger a nuclear chain-reaction, said the diplomat, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the board’s internal deliberations. Some of the work continued after 2003, when Iran is believed to have halted its nuclear weapons research in response to international and domestic pressures, the official said.

There will be a lot of noise concerning this report, with calls for military action and concern expressed for the safety of our allies in the region.  The threat to the U.S. will likely be expressed through the scenario in which Iranian officials “hand off” a nuclear weapon to Hezbollah terrorists to be used against the homeland.

Putting aside questions of preemption and deterrence of nuclear armed states, I would like to list just a few points salient for homeland security:

  • The difficulty faced by Iran in producing nuclear weapons (assuming that or a virtual arsenal is their goal) should not be taken as evidence that it is a task too difficult for terrorists.  The nuclear aspirations of a state differ greatly from that of potential nuclear terrorists: a state desires an arsenal and not simply one (or, if they’re lucky, more) weapons; a state requires the ability to secure fissile material for multiple bombs, including the capability for enrichment or reprocessing, while this technology would be beyond the reach of non-state groups; a state’s weapon design would have to be generally of predictable yield and operate within particular design constraints, while a terrorist weapon would just have to have a good chance of working or even producing a fizzle to achieve much of the desired effect; and a state would want to fashion a small warhead deliverable by rudimentary ballistic missile or small aircraft, while terrorists could do with an  improvised device weighing a ton or more.


  • If Iran does develop a nuclear weapons capability, that does not automatically mean that Hezbollah or Hamas would have access.  A rudimentary nuclear arsenal would be highly valuable to a new nuclear state and it is considered unlikely that such prized “crown jewels” would be turned over to unreliable actors for deployment in situations not directly controlled by that state.  Instead, the greater danger in the connection between proliferation and nuclear terrorism is that the increased amount of bombs or simply fissile materials increases the potential for sympathetic insiders to facilitate transfer to wanna-be nuclear terrorists.  In other words, it is more likely that officials below those in charge of the nuclear weapon programs in Iran (or Pakistan) might be moved to share their access with terrorists against the wishes of their superiors and national leaders.

It is important to keep some perspective…nuclear terrorism remains a threat and a nuclear-armed Iran would be a very negative outcome for our national security, but this week’s news should not be taken as a sign that the sky is about to fall.

Update: As soon as I schedule this post, Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick publishes additional detail on what is contained in the IAEA report:

Intelligence provided to U.N. nuclear officials shows that Iran’s government has mastered the critical steps needed to build a nuclear weapon, receiving assistance from foreign scientists to overcome key technical hurdles, according to Western diplomats and nuclear experts briefed on the findings.

Documents and other records provide new details on the role played by a former Soviet weapons scientist who allegedly tutored Iranians over several years on building high-precision detonators of the kind used to trigger a nuclear chain reaction, the officials and experts said. Crucial technology linked to experts in Pakistan and North Korea also helped propel Iran to the threshold of nuclear capability, they added.

Interesting details, and I’m sure the actual report will contain even more, however nothing that yet radically changes the overall threat picture. While the names and other specifics were not previously public, this reporting seems to reinforce already existing perceptions about the nature of Iran’s nuclear work.  More worrisome would be Iran’s recent moves to shift its nuclear facilities to locations underground and the installation of advanced centrifuge equipment.

Update 2: The IAEA report can be found here: http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/IAEA_Iran_8Nov2011.pdf


July 28, 2011

U.S., Japan to jointly study new technology to decontaminate large areas

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on July 28, 2011

The Mainichi Daily News report on the President’s Science Adviser John Holdren’s trip to the crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant includes this interesting nugget:

The United States and Japan will work together in researching new technology to remove radioactive materials from large areas around the crisis-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, a visiting senior U.S. official said Sunday.

As thousands of square kilometers require decontamination before evacuated people can return home, an “extremely expensive” task, research is needed to do so efficiently, effectively and economically, John Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology, said in an interview with Kyodo News.

Holdren, who visited the Tokyo Electric Power Co. plant on Saturday, the highest U.S. official to have done so since the crisis erupted in March, said he discussed the matter as “one of the areas of further cooperative research” with Japanese officials during his visit to the country.

What makes this interesting (at least to me) is that there has been comparatively little research into technologies that can decontaminate various environments following a radiological incident.  The most widely used techniques usually involve a brute-force approach of carting away topsoil, covering over contaminated areas, or demolition.  All useful in terms of cleaning up shuttered nuclear weapons facilities or decommissioned nuclear reactor sites, but less useful in terms of urban (or even suburban) areas that are likely to be contaminated following a large release from a nuclear power plant or dirty bomb.

Instead of investing money every year in the operation of detector systems of varying usefulness, could a better investment be in technologies and techniques to clean-up an urban environment following a radiological incident (regardless of cause)?

This is essentially deterrence through denial–convincing would be radiological terrorists that there is no reason to attempt a dirty bomb or nuclear power plant attack because the goal of large scale radioactive contamination and resulting fear/economic damage would fail.


July 26, 2011

Implementing the 9/11 Commission’s Recommendations: Bio, Rad, and Nuke Threats

Filed under: Biosecurity,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,WMD — by Alan Wolfe on July 26, 2011

As reported in this blog, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has released its 2011 progress report against the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations (released in July 2004). Of particular interest was the section on page 31 titled “Strengthening Efforts to Detect and Report Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Threats.” This section directly addressed the Commission’s recommendation to “strengthen counterproliferation efforts” related to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), notably nuclear weapons.

(The military term “counterproliferation” is misused in the commission’s report.  The proposed recommendations actually address nonproliferation and antiterrorism activities as measures to prevent a terrorist WMD incident. But I digress.)

DHS identifies its progress in countering radiological and nuclear threats by citing the deployment of thousands of radiological monitors at border crossings and to state and federal agents to “scan cars, trucks, and other items and conveyances for the presence of radiological and nuclear materials,” in addition to training on these devices. It cites the “Securing the Cities” initiative that has actually secured only one city – New York City – by the similar deployment of nearly 6000 pieces of radiological detection equipment and large scale exercises.

However, the progress report did not elaborate on DHS plans to spend more than $300 million on Advanced Spectroscopic Portal monitors, a plan that the Government Accountability Office says has not been assessed by an independent review panel. Such a review was suggested after DHS was accused of underestimating the cost of the monitors, overstating their benefits, and providing misleading information to Congress.

As for the troubled “Securing the Cities” initiative, perhaps the less said, the better. This 2006 initiative was originally intended as a pilot project to evaluate how law enforcement agencies might use radiological detection equipment within a major metropolitan city to detect, track, and interdict the movement of radiological or nuclear material.

New York City has required (demanded?) constant federal funding to continue this project because of the expense of sustaining this equipment and particular concept of operations, leading to a proposal that the federal government should permanently fund the New York City project and examine possibilities of replicating it in other cities. Of course, other cities will never see a similar project because of its high costs and the need to fund other, more conventional emergency response requests.

On the biological threat side, DHS has not yet expanded its Project BioWatch effort from the initial 30+ sites that were established over five years ago. More than 270 cities have populations over 100,000 people, which means there are a lot of major cities without any biological samplers.

DHS seems to be putting all of its chips on the development of a “Gen 3” detector that will significantly reduce operational costs by doing some level of automatic detection and analysis and reporting to officials. The current system only samples the air, requiring manual collection and analysis. However, the traditional wisdom has been that confirmatory identification in a laboratory is still required prior to alerting the state (and nation) as to a possible biological terrorist incident, because the severe consequences of announcing a “false positive” as real is something the federal government wants to avoid.

The cost and operation of an expanded detector array, addressing the majority of the nation’s major cities, will still be considerable, considering that DHS spends about $84 million a year to maintain the current system at 30 cities. I doubt that DHS will ever deploy and sustain a true nation-wide Project BioWatch effort.

This fixation on deploying biological and radiological monitors disturbs me for reasons other than cost and coverage. First, there is an obvious and deliberate lack of metrics in any discussion of the DHS projects described here. It’s easy to announce progress when there’s no ultimate objective in sight – you can avoid addressing those nasty details such as effectiveness of coverage and what limited range of hazards one is in fact addressing.

Second, when one actually reads the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations on addressing the proliferation of WMD (pp. 380-81), it becomes clear that the commission never called for such a detection array or even envisioned such a system. The commission focused on nonproliferation and law enforcement activities. That is because it recognized that “a complex terrorist operation aimed at launching a catastrophic attack cannot be mounted by just anyone in any place” (p. 365). It would require a large staff, opportunity and time to recruit operatives, a logistics network, access to special material, reliable communications, and ability to test the workability of the plan. In short, the larger the desired incident, the more visible the terrorist organization becomes.

The administration’s recently released “National Strategy for Counterterrorism” calls the danger of nuclear terrorism “the greatest threat to global security.” The nonproliferation community has jumped onto the alleged expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal and potential vulnerability to al Qaeda attacks as evidence for the need for more nuclear nonproliferation and threat reduction programs, despite assurances by Admiral Mike Mullen and other security experts that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is in fact secure.

That doesn’t assure others that there could still be the potential leakage of nuclear weapons or material in the future. However, if the real concern is sourced at Pakistan’s nuclear program, then the strategy needs to be improving relations between India and Pakistan and continuing nonproliferation efforts, not in developing a “Global Nuclear Detection Architecture” that mirrors the Maginot Line in its effectiveness.

DHS developed its operational concepts for countering biological, radiological and nuclear threats based on the Defense Department’s operational concepts for nuclear and biological warfare between states. It is the wrong approach for countering transnational terrorists seeking to use WMD against the United States. What remains unexplained is the failure of the homeland security enterprise to assess or acknowledge the inadequacies of the current approach to meet the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations on countering the possibility of a terrorist WMD incident.


June 23, 2011

Lessons learned, and not learned, from Fukushima

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on June 23, 2011

Harvard Associate Professor Matthew Bunn gives his analysis of the fallout (if you can pardon the pun) from the Fukushima event at the IAEA ministerial meeting on nuclear safety:

At Monday’s opening of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ministerial meeting in Vienna on what to do about nuclear safety after Fukushima, Director-General Yukiya Amano laid out a sensible five-point plan for improving global nuclear safety.

But Amano missed a crucial point: Disasters like Fukushima can be caused not only be accident but by terrorist action.  The nuclear industry in many countries is much less prepared to cope with security incidents than with accidents, making the need to take steps to strengthen global nuclear security – protecting against both sabotage of nuclear facilities and theft of nuclear weapons or the materials to make them – particularly urgent.

He sensibly approves of the current menu of IAEA-suggested nuclear safety improvements:

Higher safety standards. Amano called for better preparedness for multiple disasters happening together (such as an earthquake and a tsunami), strengthened measures to cope with prolonged blackouts, more effort to assure water will be available to cool reactors in an emergency, special protection for sites with multiple reactors, and increased preparedness to cool spent fuel when normal cooling is lost.

More peer review. Heinonen and I had urged that all states operating major nuclear facilities ask for an independent and international team to review their safety and security measures.  Amano had an interesting twist on the idea, arguing that it was impractical for the IAEA to review all 440 operating reactors anytime soon, and proposing instead that all countries agree to accept IAEA peer reviews, and the IAEA would then randomly select reactors to review, covering perhaps 10 percent of the world total in the first three years.

Stronger regulation. Amano called for all states to make sure their regulatory bodies were genuinely independent (a definite problem in Japan’s case) and had the resources and expertise to do their jobs.

Beefed-up emergency response. Amano urged states to establish stronger emergency response capabilities, including, for example, mobile diesel generators that could be brought to a stricken site.  In the case of Fukushima, the IAEA had little to offer Japan to enhance its ability to respond to the crisis; Amano suggested that the IAEA put together an international register of who has special expertise available in areas such as robotics or fire-fighting in a nuclear environment.

Better emergency information. The IAEA was widely criticized during the Fukushima crisis for simply passing on Japanese information with little or no real effort to answer key questions such as: “What could happen next? What should we be prepared for?”  Implicitly acknowledging this critique, Amano argued that the IAEA’s role in a crisis “should be expanded to providing analysis and possible scenarios on how a crisis might develop.

The bar of nuclear safety and security is not high enough, even if you consider the cited suggestions.  Professor Bunn doubles down:

Strengthened nuclear security measures. Terrorist attacks could also cause many of the disasters Amano described.  Both al Qaeda and Chechen terrorist groups have repeatedly considered sabotaging nuclear reactors – and Fukushima provided a compelling example of the scale of terror such an attack might cause.  Indeed, given the multiple layers of safety systems in place for nuclear facilities today – and the extraordinarily weak security measures in place in some countries – the chance that the next big radioactive release will happen because someone wanted to make it happen may well be bigger than the chance that it will happen purely by accident.

Better safety and security culture. An organizational culture that gives safety and security top priority, and that structures incentives to encourage staff to find and fix potential risks rather than ignoring them or covering them up, is crucial to high performance.

Special attention for older reactors, rapidly growing programs, and new entrants. Aging reactors that do not have all the most modern safety systems should either be shut down or upgraded to the point that they can make a case that they do not pose significantly higher risks of a major radioactive release than newer reactors do…  Nuclear programs that are expanding at a furious rate, such as those in China, India, and Russia, also need special attention to ensure that no corners are cut in the rush to build, and that nuclear regulators and other safety infrastructure can expand to cope with a much larger nuclear enterprise.

Tools beyond the IAEA. The reality is that the global effort to ensure that nuclear power is safe and secure extends far beyond the IAEA.  The actual operators of nuclear facilities bear the largest responsibilities, but, vendors, builders, and suppliers all have major roles to play.  Effective national regulators are crucial.  Responders from off the site, whether firemen or armed forces to help cope with an attack, are also key.

Reporting and learning. Reporting on incidents, analyzing their root causes, and sharing that information so that everyone can learn how to prevent similar problems in the future is crucial to nuclear safety.

More specific binding standards. The effects of nuclear accidents or nuclear terrorism know no boundaries.  Yet currently, decisions about what safety and security measures to take are left in the hands of each individual country operating a nuclear facility.  Existing safety and security conventions establish only broad principles, with no specific standards states are obligated to meet.

Not much to argue with in these suggestions.  The one point I would make is that Bunn, like the vast majority of analysts, stops considering the issue around the end of the “response” phase.  There is little to no discussion about the vast array of recovery issues involved in any radiological event.

These include not only decontamination, but the psychological, economic, and social healing that will need to take place over decades of interaction between the public, government, and nuclear industry in Japan.

You can read Bunn’s entire piece here: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/power/2011/06/21/mostly-getting-nuclear-safety-at-the-iaea-%E2%80%93-but-missing-nuclear-security/


June 16, 2011

The Problem with Assumptions

Filed under: General Homeland Security,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on June 16, 2011

The problem with bad assumptions is that given enough time they eventually come to the surface:

At that meeting, teachers for the first time addressed what they call a critical flaw in the state’s emergency evacuation plan for events at Seabrook Station. While the current emergency plan states teachers are charged with getting students on evacuation busses and accompanying them to a designated reception center, a 1987 state Supreme Court ruled teachers cannot be required to assume the role of providing assistance to schoolchildren in the event of an evacuation.

Teachers made it clear they are not part of the plan because they needed to attend to their own families in the event of a nuclear emergency.

The Seabrook nuclear power station is in New Hampshire.  It seems that emergency planners made what would seem to be common sense asumptions, such as if an evacuation was called for during a school day teachers would accompany students during the initial journey out of the 10-mile emergency planning zone.

The assistant director of the state’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management believes the current evacuation plans for the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant are sufficient, despite the refusal of some SAU 21 teachers to accompany students on outgoing buses should a public evacuation of the region ever be necessary.

Sometimes, the need to believe existing plans are adequate can overule otherwise persuasive evidence:

“If schools were in session and we had to do an evacuation, it would work,” Kathy Doutt told the audience at a public hearing on Seabrook Station safety held on June 8 at the Galley Hatch Conference Center at the Best Western Hotel in Hampton. “It may not be pretty, but it would work.”

Following a catastrophic event, people will be concerned about their loved ones.  Sometimes I think that those in a position to make plans forget the overiding importance of this fact:

Teachers made it clear they are not part of the plan because they needed to attend to their own families in the event of a nuclear emergency. They said state officials need to once and for all determine who would take on the responsibility to ensure students safety.

And while some planners assign roles to various members of the community, it is important to remember that sometimes (or even often) those people do not even realize what is expected of them:

Dunfey said when teachers were first assigned responsibility of evacuating students under the plan, a survey revealed that 97 percent of those within the entire evacuation zone would be unable to assume that task for family reasons. She said the plan states teachers are trained to react in the event of a radiological emergency and that is not the case.

“I can tell you that the staff of the school doesn’t know how to proceed,” the middle school teacher said. “I can tell you that the children of the school do not know how to proceed.”

As an aside, though an important one, is the issue of fear of radiation, especially following events in Japan:

At the June 8 meeting, Moyer also asked Doutt about rumors school bus drivers charged with evacuating SAU 21 students would not come into the area if a nuclear accident occurred. Doutt said officials are looking into that rumor but that alternative transportation has already been contracted.

However, most importantly events at the Fukushima nuclear power plant should have convinced those responsible for emergency planning that assumptions should always be questioned, especially when in hingsight they can seem almost incomprehensible.

June 9, 2011

A Joint U.S.-Russian Assessment of the Nuclear Terrorism Threat

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on June 9, 2011

Long-time readers of this blog must be asking themselves, “seriously, nuclear terrorism again?!?”  Yes again, because I find the issue of vital importance.  Today, however, I have two new twists to the topic.

First, I am writing this post in a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon.  So just a meaningless twist that adds nothing to the discussion, but since I’m on vacation this will be a shorter effort.

The second twist, and to the point of the topic, is that this assessment of the threat of nuclear terrorism was conducted together by a group of retired U.S. and Russian intelligence and military officials.  Men who had worked tirelessly in the interests of their own nations during the Cold War, often at odds with their current collaborators, came together to assess the risks that both the U.S. and Russia face from nuclear terrorism.

It is an interesting report and should be read by those concerned about the issue of nuclear terrorism. The cases studies, technical analysis, and conclusions will seem familiar to those immersed in the topic:

Al-Qaeda and North Caucasus terrorist groups have both made statements indicating that they seek nuclear weapons and have attempted to acquire them; these groups are presented together as a case study to assess nuclear terrorism as a present and future threat. (The only other terrorist group known to have systematically sought to get nuclear weapons was the Japanese cult group Aum Shinrikyo.) This study makes the case that it is plausible that a technically sophisticated group could make, deliver, and detonate a crude nuclear bomb if it could obtain sufficient fissile material.

The study recommends measures to tighten security over existing nuclear weapons and the nuclear materials terrorists would need to make a crude nuclear bomb, along with expanded police and intelligence cooperation to interdict nuclear smuggling and stop terrorist nuclear plots. The report also calls for improved protection of nuclear facilities that might be sabotaged, and of radiological materials that might be used in a dirty bomb.

What is particularly striking who the group of people who authored the report:

Matthew Bunn. Associate Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and Co-Principal Investigator of Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Colonel Yuri Morozov (retired Russian Armed Forces). Professor of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences and senior fellow at the U.S.A and Canada Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, chief of department at the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, 1995–2000.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen. Senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy, 2005–2008.

Simon Saradzhyan. Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Moscow-based defense and security expert and writer, 1993–2008.

William Tobey. Senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and
International Affairs and director of the U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism, deputy administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation at the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, 2006–2009.

Colonel General Viktor I. Yesin (retired Russian Armed Forces). Senior fellow at the U.S.A and Canada Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and advisor to commander of the Strategic Missile Forces of Russia, chief of staff of the Strategic Missile Forces, 1994–1996.

Major General Pavel S. Zolotarev (retired Russian Armed Forces). Deputy director of the U.S.A and Canada Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and head of the Information and Analysis Center of the Russian Ministry of Defense, 1993–1997, deputy chief of staff of the Defense Council of Russia, 1997–1998.

Adding additional gravitas to the authors’ collected credentials is the larger group of retired U.S. and Russian officials who make up the “U.S.-Russian Elbe Advisory Group” that reviewed and endorsed this report:

Organizer of the Elbe Group:
Brigadier General Kevin Ryan (retired U.S. Army). Executive Director for Research, Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.


Members of the Elbe Advisory Group:
U.S. Participants
Mr. Rob Dannenberg (retired CIA). Former Chief of Operations for the Counter Terrorism Center at the CIA.

General Eugene E. Habiger (retired U.S. Air Force). Commander in Chief of the United States Strategic Command from 1996 to 1998.

Lieutenant General Franklin L. (Buster) Hagenbeck (retired U.S. Army). Commanding General of the 10th Mountain Division and Superintendent of the United States Military Academy until his retirement in 2010.

Lieutenant General Mike Maples (retired U.S. Army). Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2005 until his retirement in 2009.

Mr. Rolf Mowatt-Larssen (retired CIA). Former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy and Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department at the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA.

Russian Participants
General Major Vladimir Dvorkin (retired Russian Armed Forces). Director of the Fourth Central Scientific Research Institute of the Russian Ministry of Defense in 1993-2001.

Colonel Vladimir Goltsov (retired Russian Interior Troops). Former Deputy Head, Department on Physical Protection of Nuclear Sites and Counteracting Nuclear Terrorism of the Russian Interior Troops.

General of the Army Valentin Korabelnikov (retired Russian Armed Forces). Chief of
the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces  from 1997 until his retirement in 2009.

General of the Army Anatoliy Kulikov (retired Russian Interior Troops). Commander
of the Joint Group of Federal Forces in Chechnya in 1995, Interior Minister of the Russian Federation from 1995 to 1998, Deputy Prime Minister from 1997 to 1998 and State Duma member in 1999-2007.

General Colonel Anatoliy Safonov. First Deputy Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 1994-1997, and temporarily served as FSB Director in the summer of 1995. Currently Ambassador Safonov is Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation on International Co-operation in Combating Terrorism and Transnational Organized Crime.

I believe it is fair to say that this group knows the topic of terrorism, understands the technical dimensions involved, and have had access to the best intelligence that both the U.S. and Russia have gathered on the topic.

The report, “The U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment of Nuclear Terrorism,” is a joint project of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and The Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies.  The entire report can be downloaded here in English:


Here in Russian:


June 5, 2011

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s Preliminary Report on Japan

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on June 5, 2011

 In case you missed it, last week the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released the preliminary report of their Fact Finding Mission to Japan. (http://iaea.org/newscenter/focus/fukushima/missionsummary010611.pdf)

The expected observation that the tsunami threat was underestimated has gotten most of the headlines.  More interesting to me, however, was the mention of remediation efforts in contaminated areas to allow people to resume their normal lives.  Once the reactors are completely “turned off” (which may take the rest of this year and beyond), these issues of decontamination, radiation risk assessment and communication with the public will be a running public learning exercise for the next nuclear power disaster or dirty bomb. 

There are already indications that the Japanese government has already stumbled in this arena: raising radiation limits for children without explaining the decision to the public or efforts to take simple measures to decontaminate schoolyards near the Fukushima plant.

Interesting as well is the fact that security is never mentioned explicitly, though references are made to “extreme external events.” The nuclear power industry is hesitant to engage issues of security in addition to safety, regardless of the fact that a terrorist attack might also aim to disrupt the primary and backup power systems of a nuclear power plant with the purpose of causing similar consequences.  Hopefully, the earthquake/tsunami combination that led to the nuclear meltdown will drive planning for simulataneous and unexpected events, including terrorist attacks.

The report also underlines the point that the physical impact on people of the radiation release has been minimal: “To date no health effects have been reported in any person as a result of radiation exposure from the nuclear accident.”  So much attention here in the U.S. has focused on the nuclear disaster that it is easy to forget we’re worried about events that haven’t led to one death while not seriously considering how we would handle events that could kill tens of thousands.

The main preliminary findings and lessons learned are:

  • The Japanese Government, nuclear regulators and operators have been extremely open in sharing information and answering the many questions of the mission to assist the world in learning lessons to improve nuclear safety.


  • The response on the site by dedicated, determined and expert staff, under extremely arduous conditions has been exemplary and resulted in the best approach to securing safety given the exceptional circumstances. This has been greatly assisted by highly professional back-up support, especially the arrangements at J-Village to secure the protection of workers going on sites.


  • The Japanese Government’s longer term response to protect the public, including evacuation, has been impressive and extremely well organized. A suitable and timely follow-up programme on public and worker exposures and health monitoring would be beneficial.


  • The planned road-map for recovery of the stricken reactors is important and acknowledged. It will need modification as new circumstances are uncovered and may be assisted by international co-operation. It should be seen as part of a wider plan that could result in remediation of the areas off site affected by radioactive releases to allow people evacuated to resume their normal lives. Thus demonstrating to the world what can be achieved in responding to such extreme nuclear events.


  • The tsunami hazard for several sites was underestimated. Nuclear designers and operators should appropriately evaluate and provide protection against the risks of all natural hazards, and should periodically update these assessments and assessment methodologies in light of new information, experience and understanding.


  • Defence in depth, physical separation, diversity and redundancy requirements should be applied for extreme external events, particularly those with common mode implications such as extreme floods.


  • Nuclear regulatory systems should address extreme external events adequately, including their periodic review, and should ensure that regulatory independence and clarity of roles are preserved in all circumstances in line with IAEA Safety Standards.


  • Severe long term combinations of external events should be adequately covered in design, operations, resourcing and emergency arrangements.


  • The Japanese accident demonstrates the value of hardened on-site Emergency Response Centres with adequate provisions for communications, essential plant parameters, control and resources. They should be provided for all major nuclear facilities with severe accident potential. Additionally, simple effective robust equipment should be available to restore essential safety functions in a timely way for severe accident conditions.


  • Hydrogen risks should be subject to detailed evaluation and necessary mitigation systems provided.


  • Emergency arrangements, especially for the early phases, should be designed to be robust in responding to severe accidents.

April 28, 2011

Echoes of Deepwater in Fukushima

Much of the analysis of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, both the tick-tock of events at the plant itself and the re-evaluation of nuclear reactor safety and response plans here in the U.S., has treated the subject as if it was an isolated incident. This ignores the triggering event, a 9.0 earthquake and resulting monster tsunami, along with the true utter death and destruction that resulted as opposed to the ongoing radiological situation that has yet to kill one person (the brave people working to get the situation under control have likely been exposed to high enough doses of radiation to increase their chances of developing cancer, but at this point outside the plant it likely will be difficult to identify any increased cancer rates).

This is not generally the best of ideas, either for understanding decisions made by the utility that owns and operates the Fukushima plant and Japanese authorities or in analyzing our own safety efforts and crisis response plans (never mind the fact I’ve seen significantly more concern raised about nuclear safety than questions about our own ability to deal with an event that kills tens of thousands and displaces hundreds of thousands of people).  That said…I’m about to commit the same mistake, because like in physics it is sometimes easier to treat a real physical object like a car as if it were a pure geometrical shape (such as a sphere) just because it makes the math easier. In other words, sometimes important insights can still be gained by simplifying a situation.

In this case, I’m thinking about the similarities between the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and spill and the ongoing troubles at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.  Both are technical disasters that impact people and the environment with possible long-term effects to which there has been a confused response.  In a recent Boston Globe op-ed, former DHS assistant secretary Juliette Kayyem reflects on her experiences in the Gulf:

In hindsight, it’s clear to me that there were two different responses to the spill — one political, one operational. Despite some fits and starts, the operational response largely worked. But it was the political response that garnered so much attention, and seemed so disconnected from what was going on day-to-day operationally.

The operational response, led by Thad Allen, occurred in the field. Countless Coast Guard officials, environmental cleanup crews, BP engineers, and state and local first responders focused on closing the well; used 1.8 million gallons of dispersants on the surface and sea bottom; burned oil when it surfaced; protected marshlands with protective boom; skimmed oil if it was near shore; and cleaned up tar balls when oil hit the shore.

Yet, the whole time, we were playing by a rulebook that no one could admit we were playing by. This was true not just for the White House, but for the governors and local leaders as well.

Even putting aside BP’s public-relations fiascos — former CEO Tony Hayward wasn’t the only one who wanted his life back — the notion that the US government would stand hand in hand singing “Kumbaya” with BP as we worked together to fight the oncoming oil was absurd. Thus, Thad Allen would become the voice and leader of the response, BP would be kicked off the podium (literally: their daily press briefings with the Coast Guard were canceled)

Not one of the Gulf governors — all of them Republican, at least two potentially running against President Obama in 2012 — would accept that his own experts had signed off on plans that, essentially, they no longer liked in the harsh light of day.

In a democracy, any disaster is inherently political. This isn’t a criticism. The administration did, in my view, what any compassionate and concerned administration ought to do; the governors would similarly defend themselves. And maybe first responders are too quick to criticize elected officials for involving themselves in major disasters; leadership is what we elect them for. They can assign blame, demand resources, and channel popular outrage in a way a by-the-book field response cannot.

On the other side of the Pacific, the story sounds eerily similar.  The Wall Street Journal has been carrying out some of the best reporting on the management of the Fukushima crisis:

Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the country’s top nuclear regulator, said Friday said it will run Tepco’s main daily plant-status briefing, held each evening, though the company will conduct some others on its own.

Tepco came under another indirect attack Friday, as the governor of Fukushima prefecture, or state, vowed he would oppose any efforts to reopen parts of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, as well as a neighboring Tepco-run plant, until he was assured of their safety. While he has limited ability to block any reopening, his comments underscore the rising local opposition to nuclear power in Japan.

Tokyo’s intervention in Tepco’s public-relations arm came after several briefings that sowed confusion, with Tepco issuing statements on radiation levels that it later rescinded or revised, or that appeared to catch Tokyo by surprise at briefings often held at around the same time of day.

The move deepens the government’s involvement in Tepco. After the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that led to dangerous reactor overheating at the plant, Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered advisers to set up a command center in Tepco’s offices. The government has since moved to quash speculation, amid questions over Tepco’s ability to shoulder potential liabilities over the disaster, that it would nationalize the company.

“Under the current configuration, it is not clear who is calling the shots and who is taking responsibility,”

To bring it all together, Ben Heineman, former General Counsel of GE (among his many professional accomplishments), highlighted the similarities between the two incidents in a Harvard Business Review piece:

A potentially catastrophic technological problem, an incomplete crisis response plan, misleading early information, divided private and public authority, ineffective initial actions.

This could describe the current situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and its six reactors. But, it also describes what happened after the April 20, 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

These two unprecedented events are stark reminders that effective crisis management involving complex science and technology is wholly dependent on well-thought-out — and actively practiced — crisis response plans. Of course, such plans will have to adapt to actual events, but without a robust plan, “seat of the pants” crisis management won’t work.

Although the Japanese nuclear event is not yet a week old and information is impressionistic and fragmentary, it bears a striking resemblance in a number of dimensions to the Gulf spill

Response Plan. Neither the Gulf spill nor the problems at the Japan nuclear plants were unthinkable.

Public or Private Responsibility? The U.S. government initially left many dimensions of crisis management and response to BP. But, the Gulf spill was a national issue, which required governmental direction, responsibility and accountability.

In Japan, although the government has taken the lead on many aspects of the post-earthquake/tsunami crisis, there has been confusion about who is in charge at the nuclear plants. Where is the central government? Where is the nuclear regulator?

Confusing Information. A host of factual questions were raised by Gulf Spill: How much oil was flowing? How could the flow be stopped? Where was the oil going (surface/sub-surface)? How could it be contained or removed? How could damage to environment/people/property be eliminated or mitigated? But for a significant period of time, responses from the company and the government were confusing. The U.S. government needed a central authority which used expert working groups, and which made clear to the public what was known, what was unknown, what process was in place for improving knowledge, and when there would be regular updates on those issues. A similar set of problems bedevils Japan.

Decision-Making Processes. As noted, there was substantial confusion for weeks after the Gulf spill about whether the company or different parts of government were making decisions.

A similar concern appears to apply in Japan, where opaqueness prevails about who is making decisions about what options, with what parties at the table, and with which other parties advising (from around the world).

Implementation and Resources. In the Gulf, there were also serious issues about which private and public sector actors would implement which decisions — and about what resources were necessary.

In Japan, it is very hard to tell at the moment who is responsible for carrying out which decisions at the nuclear plants.

It is still too early to draw any definitive lessons from what is happening in Japan.  Yet the basic similarities so far identified between these two events  should give pause to all regulators and emergency planners.

April 1, 2011

The Importance of Plan B: baseball and homeland security

Two days ago, Homeland Security Watch’s own Chris Bellavita pointed out in an email that “baseball season starts tomorrow and to me that means the homeland is safe.”  As a baseball fan whose pulse quickens at the phrase “pitchers and catchers report,” all I could think was: amen.

Whatever the correct analogy–I need an extended spring training; I belong in the pundit minor leagues; I am simply a replacement-level commentator–I realize that I am simply not in the George Will-class of baseball loving opinionators.  That said, I still cannot resist attempting to make another connection between baseball and homeland security.

The baseball season is long, so there will be ample time to tease out general connections between what is required to win on the diamond as well as succeed in this amorphous thing we call homeland security. However, one aspect of the game struck me as particularly timely in terms of news out of Japan–the importance of having a “Plan B.”

In baseball, one can hope that a team’s starting players will go the entire season without losing much time to injury.  This happens, albeit rarely, and when it does the team involved (assuming the players were good in the first place) does well.  Most often, this just doesn’t happen and a good team has a smart general manager who considers this possibility before the season begins and takes steps to mitigate the risk.

The Red Sox finished in third place in the American League East last season, seven games behind the Rays. Television ratings plunged and empty seats were common at Fenway Park as tickets once fought over were given away.

But it may have been one of the best jobs Theo Epstein has done of building a team in his eight seasons as general manager.

Injuries led to the Red Sox using 53 players over the course of the season and calling up two others who were on the roster but never got in a game. Manager Terry Francona drew up 143 batting orders over the 162 games and used 44 outfield combinations.

Yet the Red Sox finished with the fifth-most victories in the American League and were second in baseball with 818 runs despite having five Opening Day starters — Josh Beckett, Mike Cameron, Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Kevin Youkilis — spend large chunks of the season on the disabled list.

It would seem obvious that baseball teams would plan for contingencies involving losing a couple starting players for a period of time.  Yet it involves variables not easily managed, as the most useful bench players when regulars are healthy are not always the optimal choices to fill-in for a starter over the long term, as well as juggling competing priorities at the minor league level (i.e. whether to develop prospects or stock back ups). It is easy to plan for the best case and hard to manage risks involved with the worst:

Assembling a 25-man roster is fairly easy for most general managers, especially for a team with financial resources.But finding the depth to combat injuries requires creativity.

“You have to plan for injuries because they happen every year,’’ said Epstein. “You try and plan for the worst-case scenario and adjust to the best-case scenario. It’s by trying to create redundancy.

Some obvious lessons for homeland security planning in general.  Yet, just as in baseball, this balance between best and worst case scenario planning can be difficult in even the best prepared of countries–or simply ignored.

Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s disaster plans greatly underestimated the scope of a potential accident at its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, calling for only one stretcher, one satellite phone and 50 protective suits in case of emergencies.

Hard to believe, but it seems that in a nation often lauded as among the best, if not the best, in terms of preparation for a natural disaster simply dropped the ball regarding catastrophic planning for nuclear facilities. More from the Wall Street Journal article describing the lack of proper planning:

Disaster-response documents for Fukushima Daiichi, examined by The Wall Street Journal, also contain few guidelines for obtaining outside help, providing insight into why Japan struggled to cope with a nuclear crisis after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the facility.

There are no references to Tokyo firefighters, Japanese military forces or U.S. equipment.

The main disaster-readiness manual, updated annually, envisions the fax machine as a principal means of communication with the outside world and includes detailed forms for Tepco managers when faxing government officials.

Much hinged on the fax machine. One section directs managers to notify the industry minister, the local governor and mayors of nearby towns of any problems “all at once, within 15 minutes, by facsimile.” In certain cases, the managers were advised to follow up by phone to make sure the fax had arrived.

Obviously one could take up several blog posts to simply unpack these and other related revelations. Undoubtedly, other Japanese efforts at disaster readiness saved thousands, if not tens of thousands, of lives following the earthquake and tsunami.  I have serious doubts about the current ability of the United States to manage a similar size catastrophe–both the immediate impact and long term consequences.  And I agree with Phil that the nuclear crisis is needlessly overshadowing the larger natural disaster.

Yet it still boggles the mind that a society so prepared could allow such a substandard state of planning to exist.  The current disaster would not have been avoided if much of the response plan had been improved–only moving the back-up generators to higher ground would have saved the plant from the loss of power that initially drove events.  However, this disaster did underline the deficiencies in planning and hints at the difficulties that it caused in responding to this maximum of maximums event.

What the managers of the Fukushima plant failed to do was honestly consider even a bad, never mind worst, case scenario.  The level of planning appears to be equivalent to losing your back-up catcher or utility infielder for half the season.  Would it be inconvenient?  Absolutely.  Would it derail a season?  Not a chance.  Perhaps planning for an earthquake and resulting tsunami stronger than the reliable historical record indicates would not have been feasible before current events.  But the existence of a decent Plan B may have helped ameliorate the consequences of this Godzilla-esq black swan that fell on the people of Japan.

March 25, 2011

Preventing the next meltdown

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 25, 2011

While  most of the world’s nuclear attention is on the efforts underway to regain control of the troubled Fukushima reactors and spent fuel pools, some analysts are suggesting steps to prevent future accidents and beginning to predict the impact of the current crisis on the nuclear future. Harvard professor Matthew Bunn writes in the Washington Post about the need for a new way of performing safety inspections:

Every country operating nuclear facilities needs to undertake an urgent review — by an independent international team, not by the companies that own the plants or the agencies that have long regulated them — of whether there are risk-reduction steps as compelling as those the academy recommended that have not been taken.

He also points out the need to take security and not just safety into consideration:

The risk is not just accidents but attacks. Al-Qaeda has repeatedly considered sabotaging nuclear facilities. The 2006 study focused primarily on the danger that terrorists might succeed in draining the water from a spent-fuel storage pool, the same outcome raising risks in Japan.

Nuclear facilities around the world are much less prepared for security incidents than for accidents. While U.S. reactors are required to have armed guard forces, many reactors abroad — and even some sites with potential nuclear bomb material — have none. One senior U.S. nuclear official I spoke to last fall described security for most of the reactors he had visited abroad as “frightening.”

You can read the entire piece here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-we-can-reduce-the-risk-of-another-fukushima/2011/03/23/ABpyI3KB_story.html

In a similar piece in the New York Times, Princeton physicist Frank N. von Hippel suggests that oversight of the nuclear industry in this country isn’t up to snuff:

Yet despite the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has often been too timid in ensuring that America’s 104 commercial reactors are operated safely. Nuclear power is a textbook example of the problem of “regulatory capture” — in which an industry gains control of an agency meant to regulate it.

As a result of weak regulation, Hippel points to a potentially precarious situation concerning spent fuel pools in this country:

More recently, independent analysts have argued, based on risk analyses done for the commission, it is dangerous for the United States to pack five times more spent fuel into reactor cooling pools than they were designed to hold, and that 80 percent of that spent fuel is cool enough to be stored safely elsewhere. It would also be more expensive, however, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission followed the nuclear utilities’ lead and rejected the proposal.

Praising the staff at the NRC, Hippel instead suggests that these issues begin and can be solved at the top:

Therefore, perhaps the most important thing to do in light of the Fukushima disaster is to change the industry-regulator relationship. It has become customary for administrations not to nominate, and the Senate not to confirm, commissioners whom the industry regards as “anti-nuclear” — which includes anyone who has expressed any criticism whatsoever of industry practices. The commission has an excellent staff; what it needs is more aggressive political leadership.

Even before the nuclear events unfolding in Japan there was little chance that many new nuclear power plants were going to be built in the United States.  Not due to fears of meltdowns and radiation releases, or even concerns about long-term storage of nuclear waste, but because the economics just didn’t (and still don’t) make sense.  With fossil fuel prices so low, there are few incentives for anyone to provide the money to cover the high construction and other start up costs that come with nuclear power plants.

This is not the case in other nations that have laid out plans for aggressive nuclear power expansion in recent years.  For an informed view of the potential impact of the current crises on these efforts in China, Russia, South Korea, India, and Iran, I recommend reading “The Global Future of Nuclear Power after Fukushima” in which researchers from those particular nations provide their views.

March 22, 2011

How much ionizing radiation can one absorb?

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Christopher Bellavita on March 22, 2011

An illustrative graphic, below, describing “the ionizing radiation dose a person can absorb from various sources” — from sleeping next to someone through spending ten minutes next to the Chernobyl reactor core after meltdown.

The chart’s creator, Randall Munroe, warns people that he is not a radiation expert, and “If you’re basing radiation safety procedures on an internet PNG image and things go wrong, you have no one to blame but yourself.”

You can click on the image below to view a larger version of the chart.  Even better is to look at the original chart at this link: http://xkcd.com/radiation/

[Thanks to Maj Gordon Hunter, 8th Civil Support Team (WMD) for the lead.  He asks how come "no one in the media has yet actually quantified what 'a large amount of radiation' is?  100 Alpha particles?  A chunk of Cobalt 60 the size of one's head?  The background rad being reported on the [Japanese] reactor is actually less than the background normally found in Colorado just by walking outside.  Sometimes, knowing the math behind rad can make life hard on your TV (being shouted at, things flung into, etc).”]

March 15, 2011

Do you know what your MOM is?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Events,Preparedness and Response,Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Risk Assessment — by Christopher Bellavita on March 15, 2011

Carl Sagan’s words about science echoed today as I tried unsuccessfully to think about what is going on in Japan.

“We have … arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

If what happened in Japan were a table top exercise, no one would allow the scenario to be used.

“OK, first we’ll do a huge earthquake; bigger than anyone has ever seen before.”

“Right. Then comes the tsunami.”

“Excellent, and we make sure the waves also hit another continent.

“Perfect. And the earthquake is so massive it knocks the earth off its axis.”


“Right. That’s too much. How about this. We blow up a nuclear power plant.

“Outstanding. Make it three power plants and maybe we really have something.”


Quotes from one of the hundreds of news reports:

“People are suppressing hunger with instant noodles or rice balls.”

“Not much was left when search-and-rescue teams finally reached Natori on Monday. There was searching, but not much rescuing. There was, essentially, nobody left to rescue.”

“People are surviving on little food and water. Things are simply not coming.”

“We have repeatedly asked the government to help us, but the government is overwhelmed by the scale of the damage and the enormous demand for food and water.”

“We are getting around just 10 percent of what we have requested.”

“We have requested funeral homes across the nation to send us many body bags and coffins. But we simply don’t have enough.”

“We just did not expect such a thing to happen. It’s just overwhelming.”

“We are patient because everyone in the quake hit areas are suffering.”

“I’m giving up hope.”

“I never imagined we would be in such a situation.”

“I had a good life before. Now we have nothing. No gas, no electricity, no water.”

“All my other relatives are dead. Washed away.”


I was on the US east coast when the earthquake hit. I heard that by 11 AM eastern time, the US west coast would get hit by waves that traveled 500 miles an hour. I live about an hour from the Pacific Ocean. My family will be ok.

But still. How could that be?

Then Sagan’s voice again: “… almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.”


More quotes from news reports:

“…radioactive releases of steam from the crippled plants could go on for weeks or even months…. More steam releases also mean the plume headed across the Pacific could continue to grow. The White House sought to tamp down concerns, saying modeling done by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had concluded “Hawaii, Alaska, the US territories and the US West Coast are not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity.”

I am never comforted by passive voice sentences. But it’s the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). They ought to understand this stuff. I certainly don’t.

So I went to the NRC’s website, because people who read blogs go to websites to learn things.

The site is http://www.nrc.gov/. The home page had a picture of 3 men in ties and one woman staring at paper on a desk. Maybe its a stock photo. The caption under the photo says:

“The NRC has been monitoring the Japanese reactor events via its Headquarters Operations Center in Rockville, Md., on a 24-hour-a-day basis. MORE

Click on MORE and you download a one page press release that says toward the end:

“The NRC will not comment on hour-to-hour developments at the Japanese reactors. This is an ongoing crisis for the Japanese who have primary responsibility.”

Good policy decision. For 1955 maybe.

But I want to give the NRC the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure they are busy.

They do offer a link to their “Emergency Preparedness and Response” page:

The vapidity of the prose on that page makes me long for ready.gov (whose main page provides links to information about tsunamis, flooding and the 2011 national level exercise).

I’ll look at that later. Right now I want to know more about how the west coast is “not expected to experience any harmful levels of radioactivity.”


I know water traveled from Japan to Oregon at 500 miles an hour. I know weather travels from west to east. I know something called “radioactive steam” is being released and may continue to be released “for weeks or even months.” I also know first reports are frequently wrong. But I want to do my part as a prepared citizen.

What if the modeling and the passive voice sentences are wrong?

What if some crap in the atmosphere modified by the word “radioactive” makes its way across the Pacific?

I know with almost moral certainty that’s not likely to happen. Just as I know with almost moral certainty terrorists will not attack the elementary school a mile from my house. And the creek in my backyard is not going to flood and sweep my house away. One — a person, a community, a nation — accepts certain low probability, high consequence risks.

“We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces,” Carl Sagan tells me.


The NRC’s “Emergency Preparedness and Response” page seems to be mostly information for people who live near nuclear power plants.

In 2011, does living on the same planet as Japan mean I now live near a nuclear power plant?

No, says the NRC.

I have to be within a 10 mile radius before the page will speak to my concerns.


I do a little more reading on the NRC page and see something about potassium iodide.

You can learn about obtaining potassium iodine, which reduces the absorption of radioactive iodide, by contacting your State or local government’s emergency organization (see FEMA’s State Offices and Agencies of Emergency Management ). Potassium iodide can also be purchased from local pharmacies. You can learn more about the Use of Potassium Iodide on NRC website.

“Reduces the absorption of radioactive iodide.” OK. That’s got to be a good thing.

So I follow that link and read:

If taken properly, potassium iodide (KI) will help reduce the dose of radiation to the thyroid gland from radioactive iodines, and reduce the risk of thyroid cancer. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued guidance on the dosage and effectiveness of potassium iodide.

The NRC provides this link to a PDF document on the FDA website.

Click on that link and this is what you see:

Page Not Found

Our apologies. The link or location you used does not exist or was moved.

Clicking on the other NRC links does not immediately provide any more useful information — whether from federal resources or from my state.

I know as this “event” continues to evolve, the national knowledge construction machine will triangulate a coherent story about any radiation threat and what to do — if anything — about it.

But I want to do something now.  See something, do something.


I’m not panicking. But I am being ignorant — in (I hope) a good way. I lack knowledge about the potential effects of radioactive stuff mixing with the Oregon rain and falling on my children.

Probably never going to happen. Not in a million years. But still, I do like to be prepared. Just in case.

One of the mantras from my special event days came back to me: “It’s better to have something and not need it, than to need it and not have it.”

I’ve done enough research for today. Time to get some potassium iodide.


I know I’m never going to need it, but the NRC site did say “Potassium iodide can also be purchased from local pharmacies.”

I went to the health food store first. Then one pharmacy. Then another. Then a third.

All out.

Seems there may have been a small run on potassium iodide.

“We have more coming in tomorrow,” one guy told me. “I’ll call you when we get it in.”

A pharmacist at a national chain store stuttered when I asked.

“People have been asking about that. It must be for that…. that thing”

She couldn’t think of the word. Or maybe she didn’t want to say it. I didn’t say anything either.

Then — like the first time you go through a back scatter device at a TSA checkpoint — I surrendered.

“That ‘radiation’ thing?”

“Yeah,” she agreed. “That radiation thing. We don’t carry it. You want me to call the store manager?”

“No thanks,” I said, wondering why she asked me that.

I checked its availability on Amazon.

Crooks! Gouging!” shouted one (somewhat factually inaccurate) reviewer published on Monday. “This is OBSCENE! These pills go for 5 dollars per pack. Even l0 would be too much. Just this morning they jacked it from 9 to 49 and 10 minutes later… jacked it up to l00 dollars. They jacked it up twice in less than an hour.”

Interesting.  An internet panic?

Am I contributing to prudent preparedness or ignorant panic?


Since last autumn, FEMA has been talking about changing planning assumptions from whatever they are now (I think all hazards) to something called “whole community” and “maximum of maximums.” For an example, see http://blog.fema.gov/2010/12/70-earthquake-in-midwest-planning-for.html

The slightly Freudian acronym for “maximum of maximum” is MOM. Perhaps MOM was meant to be somewhat comforting. Or disturbing.  Or confusing.

The National Level Exercise in May will use a maximum of maximum assumption to simulate a major earthquake along the New Madrid fault.

FEMA’s whole community strategy “is built upon a foundation of a meta-scenario consisting of the maximum of maximum challenges across a range of scenarios.”

Maximum of maximums (or maximax) is also a decision science term, referring to a “strategy … that prefers the alternative with the chance of the best possible outcome, even if its expected outcome and its worst possible outcome are worse than other alternatives.”

That definition takes a bit of unpacking before meaning emerges.

FEMA is less abstract about MOM. They are talking about an event that

- Affects about 7 million people

- Covers 25,000 square miles

- Affects several states and FEMA regions

- 190,000 fatalities in initial hours

- 265,000 citizens require emergency medical attention

- Severe damage to critical infrastructure

- Severe damage to essential transportation infrastructure

- Ingress/egress options limited.


I went to a conference last week where FEMA leaders talked about their new strategy. I think they are waiting for President Obama to sign a new national preparedness directive before they make a really big deal about this change.

There were a few dozen experienced emergency management and homeland security professionals in the room when the FEMA representatives talked about “whole community” and “maximum of maximum.”

My sense was some people did not understand it. Some people understood it and liked it. Other people understood it but were concerned that now states and cities would have to change their planning assumptions (again).

I’m not sure I understood all of it. But today, FEMA’s definition of MOM does not go far enough for me.

It says nothing about the earth moving off its axis.

March 6, 2011

Dealing with Dirty Bombs

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 6, 2011

Forgive the shameless self-promotion, but I have a short opinion piece on dirty bombs up at the “Power & Policy” blog.  Basically, it argues that there has been too much focus on preventing a dirty bomb attack through detection efforts.

While useful as part of an overarching strategy, detectors are likely to fail as the primary means in preventing a dirty bomb attack.  Sensors at the border are useless against radioactive materials acquired inside the U.S.  Detectors deployed along highways and other transportation routes are similarly ineffective against radiation sources stolen within the target city.  Technology currently deployed will register false alarms caused by shipments of bananas, kitty litter, and other naturally radioactive substances.  In recent years, both a retired police officer in New Hampshire and a cat in Washington State caused radiation detectors to alarm on highways due to medical treatments they received.  Needless to say, neither “radioactive” patient was a terrorist.

So what is a viable alternative strategy?

If a dirty bomb cannot be prevented, what should be done about the threat?  First, the worst radioactive ingredients should be secured.  Second, to avoid the fear that will cause the real damage of a dirty bomb, steps should be taken to prepare for an attack.  Third, decontamination plans should be developed now.


The Departments of Homeland Security and Energy have been working toward this goal. However, stricter regulations for using radioactive sources must be enacted to support this effort.


An educated and prepared public will be less likely to panic in the aftermath of a dirty bomb attack, and this will be reinforced by a well-managed reaction by first responders and elected officials.

Cleaning up:

Weeks and months after an attack, the long-term effects of radiation will need to be addressed.  Advanced decontamination techniques and technologies that can reduce the radiation levels in city neighborhoods must be developed.

It’s a strategy of deterrence where if terrorists do not achieve the desired effects by using a dirty bomb, why bother?

Taken together, these steps will prevent widespread panic and significant economic damage.  After the first dirty bomb attack fails, terrorists are unlikely to try again.

You can read the whole thing here: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/power/2011/03/04/a-better-way-to-deal-with-dirty-bomb-threats/

March 3, 2011

Al Qaeda’s Ambitions

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats,Risk Assessment,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Arnold Bogis on March 3, 2011

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former CIA officer and Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department following 9/11, as well as former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, has published a new report on “Islam and the Bomb.”  This is not a philosophical or religious tract on the underlying beliefs of Muslims concerning violence, but instead an analysis of the arguments made for and against acquisition and use of nuclear weapons. From his preface:

When I began this project, my goal was to develop insight into the deeper thought process behind al-Qaeda’s nuclear intent. I expected to find evidence that their interest is strong, perhaps unshakable, but hinges on capability, i.e., they will use weapons of mass destruction if they are able to acquire them. Specifically, I set out to examine the impact al-Qaeda’s apparent frustration in acquiring WMD has had on the group’s intent; perhaps their interest has waned in recent years, or has been overtaken by global events.

I was surprised to discover that al-Qaeda’s WMD ambitions are stronger than ever. This intent no longer feels theoretical, but operational. I believe al-Qaeda is laying the groundwork for a large scale attack on the United States, possibly in the next year or two. The attack may or may not involve the use of WMD, but there are signs that al-Qaeda is working on an event on a larger scale than the 9/11 attack.

Mowatt-Larssen is concerned that Al Qaeda has gone out of its way to not simply justify violence against its enemies but a very particular and vast scale of destruction.

For years, I chased leads to al-Qaeda’s efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD), without finding the answers to fundamental questions. Yes, it is clear that al-Qaeda is seeking high-end WMD, specifically nuclear and biological weapons capable of causing mass casualties. But why has al-Qaeda set their sights so high? Isn’t a “dirty bomb” or a chemical device a more probable threat, since such weapons are much easier to obtain? What is al-Qaeda’s justification for using WMD — how much of a factor is religion in their thinking? What can terrorists hope to achieve by indiscriminately killing people on a mass scale?

Due to Al Qaeda’s use and seeming requirement of religious justification for such acts, Mowatt-Larssen contends that those justifications require analysis.

Considering the daunting challenge of divining what lies in someone’s mind, my modest objective is to present a framework for analyzing key factors that impact on the religious justification under Islam for and against nuclear weapons. Al-Qaeda (Sunni extremism) and Iran (Shia theocracy) are offered as two case studies in this regard, because their potential acquisition of nuclear weapons is of greatest contemporary concern. Presenting them side by side will invite a comparison of the respective arguments of a state and sub-state actor, in both houses of Islam. However, their inclusion together in this project should not be construed as an effort to compare or equate al-Qaeda and Iran with one another, either their motivations, or in moral terms.

The sections of this report represent a compilation of the various arguments that are being made in the Islamic community today. I have endeavored to faithfully represent the views of key voices in the Muslim world, scholars, and extremists, whether they are for or against nuclear weapons — and to put their testimony on the record. For this reason, the paper contains a large number of quotes and excerpts of key lines of reasoning for and against the bomb.

During a time when the majority of pundits and terrorism experts express the opinion that Al Qaeda represents an ideology that perhaps motivates action or inspires franchises and not a direct operational threat, Mowatt-Larssen’s ideas and conclusions will be controversial (never mind for those who discount the threat of nuclear terrorism entirely).

The entire report can be downloaded here: http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/uploads/Islam_and_the_Bomb-Final.pdf

Also challenging the conventional wisdom regarding Al Qaeda’s strength is Leah Farrall, an Australian counter terrorism analyst with an article in the latest edition of  Foreign Affairs. “How al qaeda works” argues that:

Despite nearly a decade of war, al Qaeda is stronger today than when it carried out the 9/11 attacks. Before 2001, its history was checkered with mostly failed attempts to fulfill its most enduring goal: the unification of other militant Islamist groups under its strategic leadership. However, since fleeing Afghanistan to Pakistan’s tribal areas in late 2001, al Qaeda has founded a regional branch in the Arabian Peninsula and acquired franchises in Iraq and the Maghreb. Today, it has more members, greater geographic reach, and a level of ideological sophistication and influence it lacked ten years ago.

For a limited time you can read the entire article for free on her blog, “All Things Counter Terrorism:” http://allthingscounterterrorism.com/foreign-affairs-article-how-al-qaeda-works/

The “good old days”…when a bad day meant millions dead…

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on March 3, 2011

I don’t mean to conjure the macabre with that headline, just to simply point out that there was a time in this nation’s history that preparing for the worst meant “nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the Ruskies” that would result in millions of deaths. I think it is absolutely a good thing that a few hundred is now considered a tragedy and a few thousand actually hard to fathom for some authorities. Unfortunately I also think that those same officials have been so focused on the everyday risks that planning for the worst days, and the associated benefits of such efforts, is a lost art.

What inspired me to such dark thoughts is the recent revelation of an official U.S. Air Force movie, “The Power of Decision,” that seems to have been filmed as a training exercise to show how to calmly react to the potential end of civilization as we know it. So calmly in fact, as a colleague pointed out, smoking a cigarette while ordering a retaliatory nuclear strike on the Soviet Union is just natural.

The National Security Archive at George Washington University guesses at its purpose:

It was probably used for internal training purposes so that officers and airmen could prepare for the worst active-duty situation that they could encounter.  Perhaps the relatively unruffled style of the film’s performers was to help serve as a model for SAC officers if they ever had to follow orders that could produce a nuclear holocaust.

While hard for those of us who were born well into the nuclear age to grasp, a concept of impending nuclear destruction was not hard to grok for earlier generations:

“The Power of Decision” may be the first (and perhaps the only) U.S. government film depicting the Cold War nightmare of a U.S.-Soviet nuclear conflict.  The U.S. Air Force produced it during 1956-1957 at the request of the Strategic Air Command.  Unseen for years and made public for the first time by the National Security Archive, the film depicts the U.S. Air Force’s implementation of war plan “Quick Strike” in response to a Soviet surprise attack against the United States and European and East Asian allies.  By the end of the film, after the Air Force launches a massive bomber-missile “double-punch,” millions of Americans, Russians, Europeans, and Japanese are dead.

Even though the U.S. “wins,” it does not seem to be much of a victory:

The United States suffered terrible losses: 60 million casualties including 20 million wounded. The industrial areas of several cities were destroyed, including New York, Detroit and Chicago. Other cities such as St. Louis, Denver and Seattle suffered severe damage and high casualties.

With the end of the Cold War, the will for domestic consideration of truly catastrophic contingencies seems to have been lost.  The worst scenarios involving nuclear weapons, biological weapons, category 5 hurricanes, and worst-case earthquakes are not normally considered by those responsible for emergency planning.  Thankfully, in my opinion, the federal government is again actively advocating for local and state authorities to plan for what FEMA leadership refers to as the “maximum of maximums.”

Both the trailer and full (one hour) movie can be watched on the website of the National Security Archive.  For both, go to: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nukevault/ebb336/index.htm

February 24, 2011

Dirty Bombs, Al Jazeera, A Legal Manual for the Apocalypse, Oh My…

Filed under: General Homeland Security,International HLS,Legal Issues,Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on February 24, 2011

A mixed bag of relatively recent homeland security items that may have escaped attention.

Dirty Bombs

The Newshour on PBS recently aired a short segment on “How Tough is it to Build a Dirty Bomb.”  If you are interested in a dirty bomb primer, you could do a whole lot worse.  The video and transcript can be found here:


The piece is a good, basic bit of reporting with an interesting interview with the man once referred to as the “Radioactive Boyscout.”  However, it would have been helpful if the reporter had pushed NYPD representatives to justify continued spending on the Securing the Cities effort instead of considering alternative means of dealing with the threat of dirty bombs.

Al Jazeera

During this tumultuous period in the Middle East, U.S. print and cable news services have scrambled to provide coverage in countries where they previously had little infrastructure.  In stark contrast, Al-Jazeera focuses its reporting on events in the region and was well positioned to respond to the string of fast breaking events.  However, very few U.S. cable companies carry the station and this led to a huge spike in traffic to Al Jazeera’s English website.

Some argue that the station is simply a platform for anti-U.S. and anti-Semitic views while others insist it is a serious news organization that allows distasteful commentators air time.  In a recent Boston Globe op-ed, former DHS Assistant Secretary Juliette Kayyem argues that the public should be allowed access to the vital reporting from that region Al Jazeera provides.  She acknowledges the less savory aspects of the station, but feels it should be left to the public to decide what and when to tune into any particular media.

This battle over cable access must be understood as a proxy for a broader lack of understanding between the United States and the region. Cable companies have no obligation to run programming, but their silence to the question “why no access’’ is a judgment, understood by the Arab world as a value-laden decision about America’s lack of desire to hear from the Arab world about the Arab world. In fact, the events in Tunisia and Egypt have been masterfully covered by the station, a news heavyweight in most of the world.

While US news corporations scrambled to get people and equipment to the region, AJE was already there, at the forefront of documenting the Egyptian government’s atrocities and demise, so much so that AJE’s offices in Egypt were raided and its journalists detained.

Could the existence of AJE on channel 203 or, if lucky, 114, upset American viewers? Yes. No doubt, if I watched long enough, I would find viewpoints expressed by commentators on Israel or the role of women that I find objectionable. But that basically describes my relationship with most cable news hosts, yet there they are, night after night.

James Zogby, in his book “Arab Voices,’’ highlights how American companies such as Cisco, Starbucks, and ExxonMobil have made important contributions to public diplomacy by shaping and promoting engagement in the Arab world. US cable companies ought to do the same by bringing a major player in the Arab world to American audiences.

Read the entire piece here: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2011/02/14/let_us_see_al_jazeera/

Al Qaeda and Mideast Revolution

A question arising from Mideast turmoil for homeland security officials is the potential impact on Al Qaeda–both short and long term.  Paul Cruickshank addresses both the optimistic and pessimistic in a CNN.com opinion piece.

The short term:

Furthermore, the weakening of security services throughout the Arab world may allow jihadist groups like al Qaeda in the medium-term to rebuild capabilities, warns Noman Benotman, a former Libyan jihadist once personally acquainted with al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.

“This is a make or break moment for al Qaeda,” said Benotman, now a senior analyst at the Quilliam Foundation, a UK counter-extremist think tank.

In the short term, Benotman says, al Qaeda will need to navigate strong countervailing winds. The clamor by protesters from North Africa to the Gulf for more democracy is hardly change al Qaeda can believe in.

“What we see playing out now is completely against what al Qaeda is preaching,” Benotman said.

The long term:

Benotman says that with the weakening of security services in some Arab countries, the greatest future opportunities may lie for jihadist groups with a narrow regional agenda rather than those like al Qaeda focused on attacking the United States and its Western allies.

According to Benotman, one of the groups that may try to rebuild its activities in Egypt is Zawahiri’s very own group: Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

In the long term, a successful democratic transition in the Arab world would arguably make the United States significantly safer from al Qaeda terrorism. The threat of attack would remain because, as September 11 illustrated, even a small group of dedicated individuals can create terrible carnage, and al Qaeda today continues to enjoy safe havens in Pakistan and Yemen from where it can organize new attacks. But if al Qaeda’s recruiting efforts are significantly hampered, so will its campaign of global terrorism.

Again, the whole thoughtful piece is worth reading: http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/meast/02/21/arab.unrest.alqaeda.analysis/index.html

Noted jihadist expert Thomas Hegghammer likes the article as well, but personally comes out on the pessimistic side of things at his blog “Jihadica:”

Basically there are two schools of thought on the matter: the ”fewer grievances” school and the “more opportunities” school – represented in Cruickshank’s piece by Osama Rushdi and Noman Benothman respectively. The former argues that democratization will stem new recruitment to al-Qaida by removing a key grievance and undermining the message that only violence can bring change. The latter argues that the unrest provides jihadis with new operational opportunities and encourages spoiler activism.

Personally I lean toward the “more opportunities” school. I agree that the recent events are bad for al-Qaida in the long run, but I see the short and medium term effects as much less predictable. For a start, the removal of a grievance does not affect the motivation of the already mobilised (this, I admit, is the same argument used by those who say Palestine does not matter for al-Qaida). Second, the relationship between grievances and violence is not linear. Terrorism is a small-scale phenomenon and usually involves people who are outliers on the spectrum of political opinion. Osama Rushdi’s claim, in the CNN piece, that “the end of the Mubarak regime will prevent men like Zawahiri from again emerging in Egypt” strikes me as hopelessly naive. Finally, discontent with Arab regimes is not the only grievance motivating new al-Qaida recruits. Hostility to Western policies and solidarity with Muslims at war with non-Muslims are also prominent motivations, and these are largely unaffected by the events in Tunisia and Egypt. Among perpetrators of Islamist terrorist attacks in the West in recent years, you will not find many who say they acted out of hatred for the Egyptian or Saudi regimes.

Lawyers are an important part of the homeland security team

Not that you might have doubted that notion, but a recent New York Times article reinforces the idea.  New York State lawyers have produced a compilation of relevant laws that can serve as a guide for legal professionals during and following a terrorist attack, disease outbreak, or natural disaster.

Quarantines. The closing of businesses. Mass evacuations. Warrantless searches of homes. The slaughter of infected animals and the seizing of property. When laws can be suspended and whether infectious people can be isolated against their will or subjected to mandatory treatment. It is all there, in dry legalese, in the manual, published by the state court system and the state bar association.

The most startling legal realities are handled with lawyerly understatement. It notes that the government has broad power to declare a state of emergency. “Once having done so,” it continues, “local authorities may establish curfews, quarantine wide areas, close businesses, restrict public assemblies and, under certain circumstances, suspend local ordinances.”

Ronald P. Younkins, the chief of operations for the state court system, said the book’s preparation was similar to other steps the New York courts had taken to plan for emergencies, including stockpiling respirators and latex gloves. Like such manuals in other states, Mr. Younkins said, it is intended to give judges and lawyers a place to turn in an emergency because the maze of state and federal laws — some decades or centuries old — can be difficult to decipher. For judges, the manual may well be their only refresher on the case of Mary Mallon, “Typhoid Mary,” who was isolated on an East River island from 1915 until her death in 1938.

“It is a very grim read,” Mr. Younkins said. “This is for potentially very grim situations in which difficult decisions have to be made.”

Published with the disarmingly bland title “New York State Public Health Legal Manual,” the doomsday book does not proclaim new law but, rather, describes existing law and gives lawyers and judges ways of analyzing any number of frightening situations.

For those interested, the full document can be found at: http://www.nycourts.gov/whatsnew/pdf/PublicHealthLegalManual.pdf

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