'Dirty bomb' test for US cities

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 October, 2007, 12:00am

The United States is preparing for its biggest ever terrorism exercise this month when three fictional 'dirty bombs' go off and cripple transport arteries in two major US cities and the Pacific island of Guam, according to a document.

Yet even as this drill begins, details from the previous exercise held in 2005 have yet to be publicly released - information that is supposed to help officials prepare for the next real attack.

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives demanded answers on Wednesday, including why the 'after-action' report from 2005 has not been made public.

Representative Bennie Thompson, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, did not get a direct answer to why it has taken two years to finish the after-action report.

'I'm just wondering how much of that information you gleaned is actually current enough to move forward with,' Mr Thompson told Dennis Schrader, a preparedness official at the Homeland Security Department. Wednesday was Mr Schrader's 45th day on the job at the department, and he lacked most of the answers lawmakers were seeking on the US$25 million exercise.

Democratic Representative Norm Dicks suggested the department might be hiding something by not releasing the report. 'Is it so sensitive because there [were] a lot of failures in this exercise?' he asked. 'You know, [Hurricane] Katrina wasn't exactly' a success.

The fourth Top Officials exercise - dubbed Topoff - takes place during the week starting October 15. The programme costs about US$25 million a year and involves the federal government's highest officials.

'The challenge with Topoff is not the exercise itself. It's to move as quickly as possible to remedy what perceives to be the problems that are uncovered,' former homeland security secretary Tom Ridge said.

According to an internal department briefing of the coming exercise, a dirty bomb will go off at a Cabras power plant in Guam; another dirty bomb will explode on the Steel Bridge in Portland, Oregon, in the northwest, affecting major transport systems, and a third dirty bomb will explode at the intersection of busy routes 101 and 202 near Phoenix in the southwest.

Local hospitals and law enforcement agencies will be involved in the 'attacks' by the dirty bombs, which are conventional explosives that include some radioactive material that would cause contamination over a limited area but not create actual nuclear explosions.