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NMSU Institute builds emergency preparedness for ultra-terrorism

In a post 9/11 world, how do you prepare for the unthinkable? The very question is an oxymoron. However, it is possible to prepare for the more imaginable, such as a coordinated radioactive-weapons attack by determined terrorists in an international city. And what, if anything, should the public be told about such a threat?

Specialist John Buell (left) and Staff Sergeant Reggie Book of the 6th CST/WMD (Texas National Guard) precede first responders on the scene of a "dirty bomb" exercise at IEE/CEMRC in Carlsbad. The team uses modern Geiger counters and other monitoring equipment to determine the Hot Zone (contaminated area) and contain the perimeter.(Photo by Therese Shakra/IEE-NMSU)

This is a question from the official trailer for the 2005 HBO/PBS film "Dirty War," which asks if we are prepared as a nation to face such an attack. The Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC) on July 17, sponsored a Dirty Bomb Full Scale Exercise to "train the trainers" and address first responder preparedness for such a scenario. First responders include fire, EMS, hazmat and law enforcement personnel.

CEMRC partnered on the exercise with NMSU's College of Engineering/Institute for Energy and the Environment.

CEMRC and MERRTT (Modular Emergency Response Radiological Transportation Training) conducted the three-day training that included classroom studies, a tour of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), and culminated in the release of a radiological dispersal device (RDD) exercise. The core participants included the 6th Civil Support Team/Weapons of Mass Destruction (CST/WMD) consisting of the Texas National Guard, while members of New Mexico's 64th CST/WMD also participated.

The CST unit faced orchestrated chaos, including strewn charred and simulated dead bodies, smoke plumes from blown-up cars, and traumatized or injured actors screaming for help. Secondary explosives were set to go off during the assessment phase as well.

"The dirty bomb is a perfect terrorist weapon because it brings fear and subsequent economic disruption," said Jim Conca, CEMRC Executive Director. "Other than conventional explosives used to set off an RDD, the attack is probably not going to kill anyone, but mention the word 'radioactive' and mass hysteria can break out." Training, therefore, has to involve carefully dealing with a potentially panicked public as well as treating all explosions as if they were dirty.

The radioactive material (undetectable by sight, smell or touch) scattered from an explosion gives it the name "dirty." While both are considered weapons of mass destruction, "radioactive" is not the same as a "nuclear" weapon such as the first atomic bombs used by the U.S. in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Nuclear, biological, chemical, and radiological (NBCR) attacks are the areas of expertise among the CST/WMD units. Their primary mission is to support local and state authorities by identifying agents and substances, performing triage, assessing current and projected consequences, advising on response measures, and assisting with requests for additional military support. The highly skilled, full-time National Guard members also assist in response operations where mass casualties from "acts of God," i.e., natural disasters or severe weather, are the cause.

Primary causes that propelled U.S. policy changes to fund and develop the CST divisions included the Sarin (deadly nerve agent) attack in a Tokyo subway in 1995 and the bombing attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, both resulting in mass tragedy. Additional support for expertly trained domestic units is the Global Threat Reduction plan (GTR). The GTR was initiated in 2004 aimed at securing and disposing of nuclear material by 2010 to stop potential terrorists from building dirty bombs. There were 700 known cases of nuclear smuggling between 1991 and 2002 alone, according to a classified database at Stanford University. Further, the former Soviet Union is known to have been economically unable to guard, much less safely dispose of active nuclear materials.

Since 9/11 another response to the global NBRC threat includes the mass decontamination shower units in mobile response systems and hospitals. Many experts suggest it is only a matter of time before the WMD threat to a Western city is realized and the police, usually first on scene, will not have been trained to deal with a catastrophic attack. A feature article title in the June 2008 National Defense Magazine exemplifies the lack of public awareness, "Public Still in the Dark When it Comes to Dirty Bomb Threat."

According to Capt. Michael A. Torres, Survey Team Leader for the 6th CST/WMD, individuals need to be much more prepared on a personal level.

"While our team is here to support the regional command, the system is likely going to get overwhelmed and the general public should be active in self-preservation in case that happens," said Torres. One team member may be tasked with identifying the threat, another with medical priorities, and others checking the structural integrity of buildings if needed. To help themselves, individual civilians should consider a small reserve of food and water, reviewing preparedness guides from Centers for Disease Control, and having disaster plans and kits ready. Ultra-terrorism (any threat having to do with NBCR elements) mandates all people take as much responsibility as they can for themselves.

"The complex geopolitical issues that make up energy and the environment include this type of logistical support for domestic security. We facilitate these activities in any way we can," said Abbas Ghassemi, IEE Executive Director.

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. CEMRC monitors the WIPP site, a repository for transuranic waste generated as part of the nuclear defense research and production activities of the federal government.

IEE comprises WERC: A Consortium for Environmental Education and Technology Development, CEMRC, and the Southwest Technology Development Institute. For more information, contact Ghassemi at (575) 646-2038 or visit http://iee.nmsu.edu or www.werc.net.