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Institute implements first responder training targeted to 'dirty bombs'

New Mexico State University's Institute for Energy and the Environment (IEE) has implemented a first responder training program targeted to "dirty bomb" attacks.

First responders from the Washington, D.C., area take part in an October 2004 training exercise based on a "dirty bomb" scenario. Gauging radiation levels was the first responders' top priority. (Photo by David Morse, Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute)

Dirty bombs, a class of weapons also known as radiological dispersal devices (RDD), are viewed as one of the gravest anticipated terrorist threats facing the United States and other nations. The principal type of dirty bomb would combine a conventional explosive such as dynamite with radioactive material to create economic and social disruption well beyond the potential immediate lethality of the radiological dispersion and physical destruction. A second type of RDD would hold a powerful radioactive source hidden in a public place, such as a trash bin or subway station, where passers-by are likely to get a significant dose of radiation.

According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's public affairs office, a dirty bomb is in no way similar to a nuclear weapon. The presumed purpose of its use would be not as a "weapon of mass destruction" but rather as a "weapon of mass disruption."

The Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC), a division of IEE in the NMSU College of Engineering, is playing a critical role in the dirty bomb threat reduction program and is doing so with high marks.

"Because the general public is so frightened about anything radioactive, fear must be anticipated even if there is no real health threat from the radioactive component," said CEMRC Director Jim Conca. "Even a phantom RDD, where no radioactive material was used but an implication or anonymous tip indicates there was, could still cause considerable fear with large economic consequences."

In training first responders such as firefighters and emergency medical personnel, Conca stresses the criticality of risk, perception and education. He also trains emergency personnel to assume that all bombs are dirty and to follow the first priority at the scene - defining the hot zone.

"This is the most important first response, and a simple alarming dosimeter is the most useful piece of equipment for a dirty bomb attack," Conca said. A dosimeter is a device used to measure an individual's exposure to radiation and can weigh as little as an ounce and cost as little as $70.

CEMRC's ability to implement effective first responder training for dirty bombs comes from its years of experience in environmental training and education, nuclear energy issues, and issues involving Homeland Security. The unique radiochemistry facility has a special plutonium-uranium lab, mobile laboratories, computing operations and offices.

"We have probably the lowest detection limits of any lab for radionuclides and have been monitoring the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant site for 10 years - people, air, water and soil - making WIPP the only nuclear facility in the world with a before-and-after on its population and its environment," Conca said. "Three Mile Island wishes it had that!"

WIPP is the world's first underground repository licensed to permanently dispose of radioactive waste left over from the research and production of nuclear weapons.

"CEMRC's solid experience in nuclear waste management and environmental monitoring of radiological and inorganic materials is a great foundation for implementing first responder training at NMSU," said IEE Executive Director Abbas Ghassemi. "As an IEE division, the CEMRC group complements our strengths in the environment and renewable energy. We're building a group focused on maintaining and protecting sustainable resources for our nation, which in many ways is also tied to our national security."

The IEE comprises WERC: A Consortium for Environmental Education and Technology Development, the Southwest Technology Development Institute and CEMRC. For more information contact Ghassemi at (505) 646-2038 or visit www.werc.net.