Experts: Nuclear terror would kill few, but harm the American psyche
LOS ANGELES — A terrorist strike using radioactive materials likely would kill fewer people than the Sept. 11 attacks, but would produce a psychological effect that the country remains unprepared for, nuclear medical experts said.
Though casualties might be kept relatively low, the country’s health care system remains unprepared to handle mass radioactive contamination, with some hospitals relying on their morgues as emergency treatment areas, doctors said Saturday at the Society of Nuclear Medicine’s annual meeting.
The most likely scenarios of a terrorist strike using radiation include: exploding a conventional bomb to scatter radioactive debris; attacking a nuclear reactor or supply of nuclear material, or poisoning the water supply, experts said.
Any case would prove a very effective terror weapon by spreading fear across the entire population.
“In a ’dirty bomb’ scenario, the psycho-social effect would be vastly greater than the bomb itself,” said Jonathan Links, professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health.
“It’s difficult to kill someone with radiation,” said Henry Royal, a professor of radiology at the Washington University School of Medicine and an expert on managing radiation.
The worst nuclear accident in history, which occurred in 1986 at Ukraine’s Chernobyl plant, directly killed only 31 people, although many more died from exposure to radiation later.
“It is inconceivable that a terrorist could get their hands on that amount of radioactive material,” Royal said.
While casualties might be relatively small, it is essential that after a terrorist strike political agencies work together and officials calculate the risks quickly and inform the public about what they know and what they don’t, Links said.
The response to the anthrax attacks on the U.S. postal system were the exact opposite to what should have been. There were too many voices, bland reassurances and a habit of getting in front of the facts, said Links, who is helping the city of Baltimore develop an emergency response plan.
In many ways, a radioactive terrorist strike would be easier to handle than a biological or chemical attack, experts said.
Most injured patients would not contaminate others, so treatment would not require the kind of extraordinary precautions needed for chemical or biological contamination.
Radioactive contamination can be washed off, and 90 percent of it will remain on a person’s clothes, Royal said.
In contrast, the Sarin gas used to attack Japan in 1994 was so contagious that 13 of the 15 treating physicians became sick, he said.
“If a radiation attack occurs, we need to worry about lifesaving procedures and not decontamination,” he said.