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Nuclear Recovery Plans Lacking, GAO Says – CQ HOMELAND SECURITY

By Matt Korade, CQ Staff

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has not developed a recovery plan to deal with a terrorist attack using a radiological “dirty” bomb or improvised nuclear device, a Government Accountability Office report has found.

The GAO audit released Friday also found that, while officials from more than a dozen high-risk cities and 10 states the agency surveyed believe they would have to rely heavily on the federal government for environmental cleanup in the event of such an attack, they were confused about which agencies to turn to for help.

In addition, the agency said, existing federal guidance to state and local governments, as well as various federal agencies, is limited on the development of recovery plans and conducting recovery exercises.

Most of the federal government’s attention to date has involved responding to a nuclear or radiological attack, including such planning for actions including the evacuation and treatment of the population of an affected area. Recovery, which would involve cleaning up radioactive contamination to allow people to return to homes and businesses, would be critical to limiting the economic damage of an attack, the report said.

House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said on the release of the report that the gap in recovery planning needs to be addressed. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies work hard to prevent such attacks and emergency management officials have thought about response, he said.

“To truly protect this country from long-term economic and social disruption, however, will require proper recovery plans, resources, and leadership to be ready and available at the federal level,” he said.

Experts consider it more likely that terrorists would use a radiological “dirty” bomb than a device employing weapons-grade nuclear materials, which are heavily secured, the GAO said. Radiological materials can be found in machines used for medical examinations, food preservation and university research. Depending on the amount and type of explosives used in a radiological device, such an attack could spread radiation throughout a building, across a few city blocks, or over several square miles, the report said.

The chairwoman of the House Homeland Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology Subcommittee, Democrat Yvette D. Clarke of New York, said such an event was “of great concern for important urban areas such as Washington, D.C., or my congressional district in Brooklyn, N.Y.,” not necessarily because of the casualties — which probably would be moderate — but because of the potential economic damage.

“To combat this problem, we must have the capability for rapid clean up and recover from such an event,” Clarke said.

A 2006 law to improve emergency response following Hurricane Katrina (PL 109-295) required FEMA to develop a national disaster recovery strategy, which would define the responsibilities of federal agencies that would aid in recovery efforts, including the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. Although these two agencies have experience cleaning up areas contaminated by radiation, it is unclear whether they would be able to address the cleanup of a radiological or nuclear attack, the GAO said.

DHS and FEMA concurred with the recommendations that they develop a national strategy and other guidance to clarify the roles and responsibilities of agencies involved in recovery, the report said.