WASHINGTON -- The U.S. has a shortage of laboratories to test the thousands of people who might be exposed to radiation if a "dirty bomb" detonated in a major city, according to a congressional report released Thursday.
If a dirty bomb goes off in a major downtown area and potentially exposes 100,000 people to radioactive materials, it could take four years to complete the necessary testing, according to the report prepared for the House Committee on Science and Technology.
A dirty bomb is a device that contains some radioactive material that could contaminate a limited area but would not create actual nuclear explosions.
Should this happen in real life in a big city, the United States would not be able to quickly conduct the necessary tests, because there are few labs capable of doing so in the country. Also, the tests available only address six of the 13 radiological isotopes that would likely be used in a dirty bomb, according to the report.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates this scenario would produce 350,000 samples to be tested. With the EPA's current lab capacity, it would take two years to complete the testing, said Dana Tulis of the EPA's office of emergency management.
"We are likely headed for a radiological Katrina if terrorists do succeed in detonating a dirty bomb in an American city," said Rep. Brad Miller, a Democrat and chairman of the subcommittee holding a hearing on the issue. Katrina was a hurricane that struck the United States in 2005.
The report acknowledges that this type of dirty-bomb scenario would probably not cause massive casualties, but Miller said four years is too long to wait for results of whether people need medical treatment.
"I can't imagine a parent, who is told that their child can be tested for cesium in two-and-a-half more years, is going to be reassured to hear that their child probably won't die," Miller said in an interview Wednesday.
Miller said there have been some efforts to address this gap, but the bureaucratic response has been frustrating. The Homeland Security Department in 2005 created a consortium of laboratory networks to address this issue.
"We have some significant shortfalls when it comes to the radiological area," said John Vitko Jr., director of the chemical and biological division at the Homeland Security Department's science and technology directorate. "Clearly we need to improve in that area."
The report on radioactive testing offered this example of the deficient lab capabilities in the U.S.:
When a former Russian KGB agent was poisoned with polonium-210 last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified 160 U.S. citizens who were staying at the same hotel where the Russian was poisoned or eating at the same restaurant and were potentially exposed. But the CDC found only one laboratory in the U.S. that was qualified and able to conduct analysis for exposure to the radioactive material.
Ultimately, 31 samples were tested, and it took seven days to test each one. The Energy Department has labs capable of doing a polonium analysis, but those labs do not meet legal standards for testing set by CDC.
The environmental tests are key, because they direct decision-makers in the recovery effort - when it is safe to move back into a building, for instance, said John Griggs who heads the EPA's monitoring and analytical services branch. "The lack of data I think is going to result in heightened public concern and panic and the demand for answers," Griggs said.
Similarly, officials recently said the nation is ill-equipped to quickly track down the make and origin of nuclear materials.
If terrorists use such a radioactive device to attack the U.S., people would immediately want to know who is responsible, and it could take months to analyze and identify nuclear material, counterproliferation officials said earlier this month.