Radiological Terrorism: The Dangers of Public Misperception

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By Costanza Galastri – Radiological terrorism is the deliberate use of radioactive material to cause destruction, contamination, and injury. Terrorists can employ a variety of active and passive methods to disseminate or expose people to the radioactive material. Passive methods are any that place unshielded radioactive material in a location so as to expose people to the source, with the intention of causing harm. These devices are generally called Radiation-Emitting Devices. Active methods include dilution of an isotope in a water supply, use of a remote control devices, or missiles. The most widely-known dissemination method is through explosives, commonly called a “dirty bomb,” which is only one type of radiological dispersal device (RDD). Concerns about the threat of radiological terrorism revolve around the ease with which radiological materials can be acquired, either legally or through theft, from industrial or medical sources and assembled into an RDD-if that’s the chosen dissemination method.

Various terrorist organizations have shown interest in developing a radiological terrorism capability, and RDDs specifically, since the 1990s. Radiological terrorism appeals to terrorists because it has the potential to cause such effects as mass panic, social disruption, and economic dislocation. The American public became aware of the threat of radiological terrorism in May 2002 when the Department of Justice announced the arrest of Jose Padilla, an American citizen and alleged al Qaeda operative, at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. At the time Padilla was accused of preparing an RDD attack in the US. However, in November 2005 the Justice Department charged Padilla with conspiracy to murder, kidnap, and maim persons in a foreign county. Padilla’s indictment did not include any reference to the alleged dirty bomb plot.

The American mass media’s coverage of the rising threat of radiological terrorism has focused on the potential for catastrophic effects. Stories about an RDD incident often describe mass casualties, plumes of radioactive clouds over urban areas, and mass relocation of those living or working adjacent to the incident sites. This sensational coverage has misrepresented the radiological threat by overstating the physical effects of an attack. Worse still, some have equated radiological terrorism with nuclear detonations.

The media has delivered this conflicting and incorrect information to a public that already has a deep fear and misunderstanding of radiation. Much of the American public erroneously believes that any exposure to radiation is highly harmful, by definition. The negative health effects of exposure to radiation are generally proportional to the dose received. Experts believe that risks of negative health effects from exposure to very low radiation doses are either nonexistent or too small to be observed. Conversely, exposure to very high radiation levels over a short period of time can cause death within a few hours, days, or weeks, depending on the dose.

Experts generally believe that an RDD is unlikely to cause mass casualties for several reasons. The construction of an RDD that could generate large physical effects, including mass casualties, is a very difficult and complex endeavor. It is believed that most RDDs constructed by terrorists will likely disperse relatively small amounts of radioactive material. Therefore, an RDD attack will not present immediate health hazards to emergency responders or the public. Few, if any, people are likely to die due to the exposure to radioactive material following such an attack.

Still, most RDDs, including rudimentary ones, may cause significant social, psychological, and economic consequences. These effects would be driven by the public’s fear of radiation and ignorance about the appropriate protective actions that they should take. Ineffective or confusing messages from government officials or the media about protective actions would exacerbate the public’s fears during an RDD incident. In such circumstances, the public may ignore direction from emergency response personnel and undertake protective actions (shelter-in-place, evacuation, self decontamination, among others) that may be unnecessary or, at worst, place them at greater risk. Emergency response personnel may be overwhelmed by people demanding services or support that they don’t need. Healthcare facilities are likely to be crowded with people asking to be screened for contamination.[1]

In recent years, many jurisdictions across the United States have conducted exercises, acquired new radiation measurement instruments or refurbished old ones, and extensively trained their emergency personnel to respond to a radiological terrorist incident. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also has conducted multi-level, multi-agency, and multi-jurisdictional exercises to train Federal, state, and local officials on how to respond jointly to radiological terrorism. For instance, in May 2003 more than 100 Federal, state, local, and private sector agencies and organizations participated in the “Top Officials II” (TOPOFF II) exercise, which included a simulated RDD incident. This flurry of planning and preparation has produced some benefits. Many jurisdictions today are better prepared to respond to an RDD attack; however, others still lack basic resources or expertise. Nevertheless, even the most prepared jurisdictions would probably find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to manage the social and psychological consequences of an RDD. In such circumstances, many emergency response organizations may be forced to redirect scarce resources to meet the needs of a public panicking by misinformation about the dangers of a radiological attack.

Public education is a critical component of radiological terrorism response planning. Jurisdictions must educate the public about the effects and dangers of a radiological incident. Federal, state, and local government officials should receive sufficient training so they are prepared to provide effective strategic communications during an incident. A well-tailored public education campaign must overcome misinformation about the nature of the RDD threats, speak to a range of audiences, and build confidence in emergency response organizations. By the same token, the public must trust the information that public officials will provide after an RDD incident and behave accordingly. Public trust is critical to help responders manage an incident. Clear, accurate information about radiological threats is fundamental to avert mass panic and save lives. (Photo Credit –


[1]A 1987 accidental release of Cesium-137 (Cs-137) in Goiânia, Brazil illustrates the potential psychological, economic, and social effects of an RDD. On September 13, 1987, two men stole an orphaned radiotherapy unit source from an abandoned medical clinic located in downtown Goiânia. The unit consisted of approximately 20 grams (1,375 curies) of Cs-137 in the form of cesium chloride salt. Given their limited literacy, the men were unfamiliar with the international radiation symbol and did not realize that the source contained radioactive material. They dismantled the unit to sell it to a junk yard as scrap metal, and-in the process-contaminated themselves, several family members and neighbors, and the environment. The incident was discovered only on September 29, when a local physician recognized the symptoms of acute radiation syndrome in some of the victims.

The Goiânian authorities established a triage area at the local Olympic Stadium as soon as they were alerted to the release. Brazilian police, fire, and civil defense personnel isolated the main contaminated sites, evacuated residents living around those areas, and directed approximately thirty people that required immediate screening to the stadium. However, for days after the incident, authorities failed to issue unambiguous information to the public about the magnitude and danger of this release. As a result, rumors spread throughout the city in the weeks following this event and a large segment of the Goiânian population panicked. Misunderstanding of radiation principles and mistrust of local authorities’ capability to manage this incident exacerbated mass fear and panic. For fear of contamination, some people took off their clothes and burned them in the first few days after the release. Forty thousand people self-evacuated and 112,000 demanded to be screened, some repeatedly, in the two weeks that followed. Many panicked and fainted while waiting in line to be screened. Five thousand of the first 60,000 people screened presented severe psychosomatic symptoms that mimicked acute radiation syndrome such as skin reddening and blisters, vomiting, and diarrhea. Over 8,000 people also demanded to receive a “Certificate of Non-Contamination” after the examination fearing discrimination. A few people left the city altogether and tried to change their identities. Overall, two hundred and forty-nine people were found to be contaminated, 49 were admitted to various hospitals, and four died as a result of this release.

A large portion of the population became hostile and uncooperative after the news of release became public. Victims’ families and people living near the contamination areas were ostracized by their families and friends after being evacuated and refused accommodation in many hotels. At times, they had to resort to sleeping in the streets. Some people also became openly aggressive towards the emergency responders and the victims’ families, believing that they might spread the contamination. Approximately 600 people tried to stop the first two victims’ funeral in a local cemetery. They blocked the hearse, stoned the caskets, and wrenched crucifixes and tomb stones in frustration.

Subsequent studies showed that the negative attitudes of the Brazilian public towards the Goiânian population in general and the victims in particular continued for years after the event. Surviving victims were discriminated against and found it generally difficult to find jobs. Moreover, the sale of many agricultural and other products originating in this state decreased significantly.

Costanza Galastri Bio Picture Costanza Galastri is a Research Fellow with the Domestic Preparedness and Homeland Security program. Her work focuses on radiological incident response planning

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