Combating Nuclear Terrorism:

Actions Needed to Better Prepare to Recover from Possible Attacks Using Radiological or Nuclear Materials

GAO-10-204: Published: Jan 29, 2010. Publicly Released: Feb 26, 2010.

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A terrorist's use of a radiological dispersal device (RDD) or improvised nuclear device (IND) to release radioactive materials into the environment could have devastating consequences. GAO was asked to examine (1) the extent to which the federal government is planning to fulfill its responsibilities to help cities and their states clean up contaminated areas from RDD and IND incidents, (2) what is known about the federal government's capability to effectively clean up these contaminated areas, and (3) suggestions for improving federal preparedness to help cities and states recover from these incidents. The report also discusses recovery activities in the United Kingdom. GAO reviewed federal laws and guidance; interviewed officials from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Energy (DOE), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and surveyed emergency management officials from 13 cities at high risk of attack, their 10 states, and FEMA and EPA regional offices.

FEMA, the DHS agency responsible for developing a comprehensive emergency management system, has not developed a national disaster recovery strategy, as required by law, or issued specific guidance to coordinate federal, state, and local government recovery planning for RDD and IND incidents, as directed by executive guidance. To date, most federal attention has been given to developing a response framework, with less attention to recovery. Responding to an attack would involve evacuations and providing treatment to those injured; recovering from an attack would include cleaning up the radioactive contamination to permit people to return to their homes and businesses. Existing federal guidance provides limited direction for federal, state, and local agencies to develop recovery plans and to conduct exercises to test recovery preparedness. Of the over 90 RDD and IND exercises to test response capabilities in the last 6 years, only 3 included a recovery component. GAO's survey found that almost all 13 cities and most states believe they would need to rely heavily on the federal government to conduct and fund analysis and environmental cleanup activities. However, city and state officials were inconsistent in views on which federal agencies to turn to for help, which could hamper the recovery effort. Although DOE and EPA have experience cleaning up localized radiation-contaminated areas, it is unclear whether this federal capability is sufficient to effectively direct the clean up after RDD or IND incidents, and to efficiently address the magnitude of cleanup that would follow these incidents. According to an expert at DOE's Idaho National Laboratory, experience has shown that not selecting the appropriate decontamination technology can generate waste types that are more difficult to remove than the original material and can create more debris requiring disposal--leading to increased costs. Limitations in laboratory capacity to rapidly test potentially millions of material samples during cleanup, and uncertainty regarding where to dispose of radioactive debris could also slow the recovery process. At least two-thirds of the city, state, and federal respondents expressed concern about federal capability to provide the necessary cleanup actions after these incidents. Nearly all survey respondents had suggestions to improve federal recovery preparedness for RDD and IND incidents. For example, almost all the cities and states identified the need for a national disaster recovery strategy to address gaps and overlaps in federal guidance. All but three cities wanted additional guidance, for example, on monitoring radioactivity levels, cleanup standards, and management of radioactive waste. Most cities wanted more interaction with federal agencies and joint exercising to test recovery preparedness. Finally, GAO's review of the United Kingdom's preparedness to recover from radiological terrorism showed that it has already taken actions similar to those suggested by GAO's survey respondents, such as issuing national recovery guidance, conducting a full-scale recovery exercise, and publishing national recovery handbooks for radiation incidents.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To better prepare federal agencies to coordinate with state and local governments on the analysis and environmental cleanup of areas contaminated with radioactive materials following RDD or IND incidents, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator to prepare a national disaster recovery strategy that would clarify federal responsibilities for assisting state and local governments with the analysis and environmental cleanup of areas contaminated with radioactive materials in the event of RDD or IND incidents.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) needed to better prepare federal agencies to coordinate with state and local governments on the analysis and environmental cleanup of areas contaminated with radioactive materials following terrorist attacks involving a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD)- frequently referred to as a "dirty bomb" - or Improvised Nuclear Device (IND), which is a crude nuclear bomb. An RDD generally has the potential to kill or injure hundreds of people and contaminate up to several square miles, while an IND could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries and contaminate thousands of square miles. In January 2010, GAO recommended that FEMA prepare a national disaster recovery strategy that would clarify federal responsibilities for assisting state and local governments with the analysis and environmental cleanup of areas contaminated with radioactive materials in the event of RDD or IND attacks. FEMA officials told us that this recommendation has been addressed through a White House Memorandum dated May 16, 2012, that clarifies federal responsibilities in the event of such attacks. The memorandum incorporates three sets of guidance prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: (1) Remediation Cleanup Process for Late Phase Nuclear Power Plant, Radiological Dispersal Device or Improvised Nuclear Device Incident Scenarios, (2) Long-Term Disposal of Large Volumes of Radiological Waste, and (3) Reentry Matrix following a Radiological Incident or Accident . FEMA officials told us that they also planned to merge this guidance with other guidance that was published in the August 1, 2008, Federal Register Vol. 73, No. 149.

    Recommendation: To better prepare federal agencies to coordinate with state and local governments on the analysis and environmental cleanup of areas contaminated with radioactive materials following RDD or IND incidents, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator to issue guidance that describes how federal capabilities would be integrated into and support state and local plans for recovery from RDD and IND incidents.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) needed to better prepare federal agencies to coordinate with state and local governments on the analysis and environmental cleanup of areas contaminated with radioactive materials following terrorist attacks involving a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD)-frequently referred to as a "dirty bomb"-or Improvised Nuclear Device (IND), which is a crude nuclear bomb. An RDD generally has the potential to kill or injure hundreds of people and contaminate up to several square miles, while an IND could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries and contaminate thousands of square miles. In January 2010, GAO recommended that FEMA issue guidance that describes how federal capabilities would be integrated into and support state and local plans for recovery from RDD and IND attacks. FEMA officials told GAO that this recommendation has been addressed through the Wide Area Recovery and Resiliency Program (WARRP). The purpose of WARRP is to develop and demonstrate solutions (i.e., frameworks, operational capabilities and interagency coordination) that will enable a timely restoration of basic services and re-establishing of social and economic order following a catastrophic attack FEMA officials also provided four WARRP products that describe how federal capabilities would be integrated into and support state and local recovery plans, including plans for recovery from incidents involving chemical, biological, and radiological (CBR) contamination: (1) Urban Area Recovery Planning with CBR Hazards: Lessons Learned from Seattle and Denver, November 2012; (2) Key Planning Factors for Recovery from a Radiological Terrorism Incident, September 2012, (3) Response and Recovery Knowledge Product: Critical Infrastructure and Economic Impact Considerations for Recovery from Chemical, Biological, and Radiological Incidents, September 2012; and (4) Interim Clearance Strategy for Environments Contaminated with Hazardous Chemicals, July 2012.

    Recommendation: To better prepare federal agencies to coordinate with state and local governments on the analysis and environmental cleanup of areas contaminated with radioactive materials following RDD or IND incidents, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator to schedule additional recovery exercises, in partnership with other federal, state, and local governments that would, among other things, specifically assess the preparedness of federal agencies and their contractors to conduct effective and efficient analysis and environmental cleanup activities associated with RDD and IND incidents.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO found that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) needed to better prepare federal agencies to coordinate with state and local governments on the analysis and environmental cleanup of areas contaminated with radioactive materials following terrorist attacks involving a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD)-frequently referred to as a "dirty bomb"-or Improvised Nuclear Device (IND), which is a crude nuclear bomb. An RDD generally has the potential to kill or injure hundreds of people and contaminate up to several square miles, while an IND could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries and contaminate thousands of square miles. In January 2010, GAO recommended that FEMA schedule additional recovery exercises, in partnership with other federal, state and local governments that would, among other things, specifically assess the preparedness of federal agencies and their contractors to conduct effective and efficient analysis and environmental cleanup activities associated with RDD and IND attacks. FEMA officials told us that this recommendation has been addressed through their promotion of recovery-focused exercises as part of the agency's all-hazards, capability-based approach to emergency preparedness. The officials provided us with a list of additional RDD (10) and IND (5) recovery exercises, that FEMA performed in 2011-2013, in partnership with other federal, state and local governments. FEMA officials also told us that they sponsor Homeland Security and Emergency Management Performance Grants to strengthen recovery core capabilities, which under DHS's National Preparedness Goal are needed for an all hazards, capability-based approach to preparedness planning across all levels of government. For, example, FEMA officials worked with local government officials in Chicago on their IND recovery planning and encouraged Chicago to include recovery core capabilities in this planning.

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