Although a “dirty bomb” attack against the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex could result in serious economic and psychological consequences, while producing tens to hundreds of latent cancers, it would be very difficult to carry out, according to a study by the University of Southern California (USC).
Scientists from USC’s Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) analyzed the impact of a port-bombing scenario in which terrorists used a radiological dispersal device (RDD), or “dirty bomb,” which combines radioactive material with conventional explosives. Called “A Risk and Economic Analysis of Dirty Bomb Attacks on the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach,” the study was done by Heather Rosoff and Detlof von Winterfeldt.
The authors determined that while a dirty bomb attack against a major U.S. port complex like L.A./Long Beach is possible, it would not be easy to carry out because of the difficulties associated with obtaining and transporting radioactive materials, building the bomb and detonating the device successfully. However, they pointed out that a dirty bomb with enough power to significantly disrupt port operations could be designed to fit into something as small as a suitcase.
A dirty bomb at the ports would not kill many people initially, since the high doses of radiation would be confined to a relatively small area. Over time it could produce tens to hundreds of latent cancers, though far less than a conventional nuclear weapon.
According to the study, the primary impact of such an attack would be economic, including the expense of evacuations and de-contamination efforts. The length of the port shutdown would depend, in part, on the decision to declare access as safe. The economic impact of a shutdown is estimated to be $20-billion for the first month. That number would decrease as businesses and ships are redirected elsewhere.
Dept. of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, whose agency recently agreed to fund CREATE for another three years at a cost of $11 million, said ports remain attractive targets for terrorists because of the economic impact an attack could cause.
“The port of L.A./Long Beach … is the busiest port in our country, where 44% of all imports enter the U.S. – an economic flow worth $295 billion,” he said in a recent speech. “That number should tell us just how critical our ports remain to our economy. Clearly, if terrorists want to devastate our economy, then from a cost/benefit perspective, one way of doing that is to launch devastating attacks on these essential vehicles for commerce and trade.”
Chertoff said the CREATE program is valuable as it brings together some of the finest scholars and researchers to help assess the risks of terrorism, gauge its economic consequences, and propose and evaluate strategies for making the nation safer and more secure.
“It is precisely this type of cost-benefit, risk-management approach that is needed to help prevent the kind of catastrophic attack we sustained on 9/11,” he said. “Let me remind you that it was Osama Bin Laden himself who spoke about the horrific 9/11 attack in cost/benefit terms. In a post on the Al-Jazeerah site in November 2004, the same year we launched CREATE, he claimed that while al-Qaida spent $500,000 on the 9/11 attacks, his organization inflicted more than $500 billion in economic damage. Clearly we need programs like CREATE to help frustrate the plans of terrorists who want to destroy our economy and our way of life.”