Radioactive weapons a definite possibility
Anthony M. Gaglierd, EMT
Radiological Officer–Instructor III
Allegheny County Emergency Services
The mass casualty decontamination corridor (“Mass Casualty Decon for Terrorist Incidents,” by William M. Moultrie, December 1998) is an interesting concept well suited to chemical agent release. There were several other good points made.
First, water and (if available) soap can be used to remove chemical agents. Chlorine has the added advantage of destroying the agent but the disadvantages of availability, proper dilution, delivery, contact time required, and the need for thorough removal.
Second, the problem of off-gassing is extremely important to firefighters in the decon area and EMS personnel who would have to treat and transport profoundly exposed victims.
Third, it is important to use signs and symptoms including type, number, and severity in determining the appropriateness of transport or treatment in a casualty holding area.
My concern is the comment under the subhead “Runoff”: “Conversely runoff from a radiological incident must be captured.” This would imply that this method would be suited for a mass decon in a radiological incident.
Contamination resulting from a terrorist incident using nuclear material would probably involve a radiological dispersal device (RDD). The contamination would be in a dry form on the victims` clothing and exposed skin. Unlike chemical agents, radiological agents do not cause immediate harm via skin absorption. The ideal methodology for radiological decontamination is dry decon (removing contaminated clothing), which should remove most of the con-tamination. Survey instruments are available to assess the degree and location of remaining contamination. The victims could then be directed to a facility that has an improvised structure where they could wash the affected area or shower completely. The runoff from this decontamination activity can be safely discharged to the wastewater system.
I don`t believe it is wise to dismiss the possible use of any weapon of mass de-struction (including nuclear) by a terrorist by saying the possible use of radioactive material is small because of the “difficulty” in obtaining material in powdered form. Information from the Radioactive Materials Incident Report Database shows 13 percent of the incidents reported involve lost or stolen radioactive materials or devices. A Nuclear Regulatory Commission study found approximately 15 percent of all general licensees sampled could not account for all of their generally licensed radioactive materials. There are 45,000 general licensees who possess 600,000 devices that contain radioactive materials. There have been cases throughout the world where death, injuries, and massive contamination have occurred because of the theft and accidental release of radioactive materials. In 1995, The New York Times reported a Chechan separatist group left a package containing explosives and radioactive cesium in Ismailovsky Park in Moscow, Russia.
An inside attack on a nuclear power plant or the detonation of high explosives outside the boundaries of a nuclear power plant could result in the release of radioactive materials.
Sharing information and lessons learned such as these is of great value as we develop plans and operational guidelines for dealing with incidents involving chemical, biological, or nuclear materials, whether technological or terrorist in origin.