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Critics Call DHS Dirty Bomb Cleanup Guidelines too Weak

New York, Jan 04, 2006

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has issued guidelines that cover cleanup of a “dirty bomb,” a crude nuclear device that uses common explosives to spread radioactive materials. The draft guidelines have been in development for several years and are released for interim use to assist local, state and federal officials in planning a response to a dirty bomb attack; DHS is accepting comments on the draft guidance until March 6, 2006, however, they are recommended for use immediately. Critics are calling the cleanup guidelines too weak and the allowed level of radioactive exposure too high a cancer risk.

Published in the Federal Register, the guidelines, "Application of Protective Action Guides for Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD) and Improvised Nuclear Device (IND) Incidents,” are the result of an interagency working group development process led by DHS and initiated in 2003. The working group determined that the nature of potential impacts from radiological and nuclear terror incidents was extremely broad, from light contamination of a street or building, to widespread destruction of a major metropolitan area.

Rather than setting a numerical standard for radioactive exposure, the guidelines direct local, state and federal officials to various benchmarks set by other agencies and international organizations including the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP), a group which works with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) on international standards for radiation protection. ICRP maintains that a long-term release of 10,000 millirems a year is an acceptable exposure standard after cleanup, an amount that is estimated to be about 30 times what the average American receives from natural and manmade sources of radiation.

According to the Federal Register notice, the draft guidelines are not intended to define “safe” or “unsafe” levels of exposure or contamination. Rather, they represent the approximate levels at which the associated protective actions are recommended. But critics of the guidelines cite this approach as too lax, and recommend use of standards employed by the Environmental Protection Agency when power plants are torn down.

A DHS spokesman told the Associated press that the new guidance did not necessarily suggest using the international agency’s number, but recommended considering its use, “depending on what the circumstance is, and what the environment is, and the state and local authorities’ need for that area.”

The guidelines were prepared by DHS in coordination with the Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

To view the Federal Register notice and for more information on submitting comments, click here.

 Homeland Defense and Security Standardization Collaborative