Radiation. The mere mention of the word tends to conjure up images of mushroom clouds, Hiroshima and Three Mile Island. To many, it is an even bigger concern today with the threat of an Iranian nuclear program and terrorists using radiological dispersal devices or RDD's. Rumors of missing "briefcase nukes" from former Soviet arsenals and Osama bin Laden's attempts to acquire one of these weapons only make these concerns larger.
What many people fail to realize is that we are surrounded by radiation every day. No matter where we go, we are surrounded by small amounts of radiation called "background radiation". Radioactive sources travel up and down our highways every day. Even if you don't have a nuclear power plant in your jurisdiction, chances are you have a nuclear medicine department in a local hospital or clinic. Many construction firms use radiological sources to check welds in steel or thicknesses in concrete or asphalt as quality assurance measures.
With so many radiological sources around us, how can we be sure we are able to handle a radiological emergency? The answer lies in two areas, preparedness and training.
Preparedness - Knowing your District
Preparedness begins with conducting a hazard and vulnerability assessment. While the threat of a terrorist using a "dirty bomb" is a possibility, the obvious sources cannot be overlooked. This segment of preparedness is known as preplanning. First, what businesses in your jurisdiction use radiological sources? Many jurisdictions may assume they are safe because they are not located near a nuclear power plant. This assumption can have life and death consequences as radiological sources are much closer than many think.
Larger hospitals have nuclear medicine departments that utilize radioactive sources for medical screenings and cancer treatments. Smaller hospitals, clinics, dentists and veterinarians also maintain x-ray machines utilizing radioactive sources. Engineering and construction firms use radioactive sources in order to X-ray welds for quality assurance and asphalt and concrete roadways to search for voids and to ensure the proper thicknesses have been poured. These occupancies are subject to the same fires and explosions as any other structure. The radiation component makes the response much more difficult in these cases.
Another overlooked possible radiation hazard is the transportation sector. There are over three million shipments of radioactive materials annually. These shipments run the gamut from low level radioactive sources found in smoke detectors to high level radioactive waste such as spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors. Unlike other hazardous materials, where the container size and shape is an instant clue to the contents, this is not always the case with radioactive materials. Low level radioactive material can be shipped in innocuous cardboard boxes with nothing more that a small sticker or placard indicating the contents. High level radioactive materials are shipped in large steel casks that are unmistakable.
Low level radioactive material may be found on almost any street in any jurisdiction. It may be carried by private couriers, messengers, UPS, Fed Ex, etc. Depending on the amount of radiation present, the vehicles may or may not be placarded, but the boxes always will. Certain government shipments of "critical components" or weapons grade material are a special case altogether. Not only are the containers and vehicles unmarked, but they are also escorted by armed Federal Marshals in the vehicle and also in chase vehicles leading and following the transport vehicle. first responders walking up to one of these vehicles that has been involved in any kind of incident may find themselves being watched from behind the barrel of an automatic weapon. The time to find out about this situation is not when it happens, but beforehand through the preplanning process, particularly when shipments such as these travel along predetermined routes.