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Preventing Dirty Bombs

September 1, 2010
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Online Exclusive
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The Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) is working to keep U.S. citizens safe from dirty bombs by conducting exercises on the other side of the world. Members representing the initiative recently wrapped up a three-scenario tabletop exercise in Mongolia to help the country prevent terrorists from obtaining its nuclear or radiological material.

Five U.S. officials, including four from Sandia National Laboratories and one specifically affiliated with the GTRI program, traveled to the Asian nation to work with 30 Mongolians who represented interests such as nuclear facility management teams, off-site guard forces, local police, national emergency responders and the military. The partners rehearsed protecting the two facilities in Mongolia that have the high-activity radioactive material attractive to terrorists. "Not every ounce of radioactive material would be useful in a dirty bomb," Ken Sheely, the deputy director of GTRI, explains. "We don't try to protect everything."

The GTRI wants to ensure security upgrades are in place and responders have the capability to prevent terrorists from accessing radiological and nuclear materials. In the exercise, participants simulated fictional attacks at civilian nuclear sites to enable responders to run through their procedures, including organizations' authorities, response timelines and tactics. "We want these scenarios to be as real as they can possibly be," Sheely says. "They are fictional, but we try to base them off events we have already seen terrorists perform." The GTRI presented one of the scenarios in the exercise based on what officials already know terrorists do, such as use explosives and automatic weapons. The other two scenarios were designed by the Sandia representatives and Mongolians to align more with specific threats in the nation.

GTRI efforts focus on multiple aspects of the terrorist threat. "We work with countries like Mongolia to actually design and install additional security enhancements," Sheely explains. This includes alarm systems and other measures to form a foundation of increased security around radioactive sources. But prevention is only half the battle. "Security is more than just detection and deterrent and protection; it also involves response," Sheely says. Though preventing terrorists from reaching dirty-bomb sources is the first priority, countries also need to plan and test their procedures to ensure that if the bad guys do get their hands on the materials that they do not remove them from the facility. Sheely explains that allowing responders to exercise in real-world scenarios enables them to gain the experience to carry out well-laid plans.

Though the exercise has concluded, the GTRI will continue to work with Mongolia in the future to ensure nuclear security. It also plans to conduct similar exercises soon with Indonesia, Romania and Moldova. Previously, officials with the initiative ran through scenarios with Serbia, Poland, Hungary and the CzechRepublic, and domestic efforts also have been made. Within the United States, 10 exercises have been completed that included site-level personnel and state and local law enforcement as well as the FBI and other national-level assets. These types of exercises are only part of the GTRI's broader mandate to enhance worldwide nuclear security, and officials are working with more than 100 countries to implement elements of the initiative.