nuclear fuel in one assembly is sufficient for use in several “dirty bombs.”
An exaggerated perception of radiological hazard is characteristic of laypersons who are afraid of radiation. But a fact of no lesser importance is that the same inadequate perception of radiological danger is also characteristic of most decision makers at all levels of the legislative and executive branches.
The magnitude of response and the efforts required to alleviate the effects of radiation in contaminated areas will depend on the actual levels of radioactive contamination, as well as on the choice of criteria for defining an “acceptable” radiological risk. On the basis of past experience gained from nuclear accidents, one can conclude that local authorities, acting under pressure from politicians, set acceptable contamination levels on the basis of the everyday situation rather than on levels that may be appropriate in the context of either a radiological cleanup or a recovery phase. For instance, in 1986 in Goanna, Brazil (during the loss of an unaccounted medical radiological source), response measures, such as defining evacuation zones and close monitoring zones, were based on exposures that were 10 times lower than the lowest acceptable radiation accident levels set by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Similar situations took place after the Chernobyl accident. One could forecast that after an act of radiological terrorism, decision making by various authorities will be dictated by enormous political and popular pressures, as well as by the desire to avoid drawing parallels between the actual event and past nuclear power plant accidents.
To make the public’s response to an act of radiological terror more measured, as well as lower the effect of socially multiplied factors of risk, one needs to keep in mind the fact that public perception is shaped at two parallel levels: at the level of perception of the decision makers and at the level of perception of the general public. The mass media plays an important role in linking these two. Mass media needs to work with the decision makers. The mass media can increase public anxiety over the attack. It is also the fastest and the most efficient way of spreading official information on protective measures. In the context of radiological threat, we look beyond the mere recognition by a journalist of his or her social responsibilities. It is necessary to prepare in advance specialized sources of information on such science-intensive subjects as radiological terror and to engage in a conscious effort to get journalists familiar with them. It is necessary to create a strategy for informing the public of a radiological terrorist attack and to conduct joint training with emergency managers and journalists based on procedures established for a joint effort to inform the public.
The medical community, to which people will turn for information and advice, plays a major role in shaping public perception. It will be necessary to establish large-scale dose metering and medical evaluation capabilities for the exposed victims, as well as for the responders. Later, prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation will take place. Individuals who have been exposed to radiation will be in need of periodic clinical examinations that need to be conducted by highly qualified doctors. General practitioners are the ones who enjoy most people’s trust when it comes to questions related to the effects of radiation. Today, however, most general practitioners are not much different from the majority of the general population in terms of their perception of the “radiological hazard.” It is necessary to continuously educate general practitioners on the issues of medical radiology. Dozens or hundreds of people may require specialized medical help, which will include psychological rehabilitation. The victims should also be included in an epidemiological radiology registry, and a reconstruction of their exposure must take place. It is extremely important that, at the stage of mass examination, doctors should understand the specific psychological condition of the exposed, as well as their common behavioral patterns, and that they can provide mental counseling to those who were exposed, as well as to those who were not directly exposed but who are anxious.
The necessity of work on protective measures that either prevent or lower the levels of human exposure. These measures may include
Isolating the source of the attack and creating additional protective barriers around it that would limit migration of the radionuclides in the environment;
Limiting the duration of contact of the population to the radioactive source (i.e., limiting access, shelter, evacuation, and relocation);
Setting and observing strict limits regulating additional exposure;
The use of hygienic measures and pharmaceuticals (sanitary treatment, limiting the consumption of contaminated food, etc.); and
Protective measures for various environments (deactivation, water safety measures, etc.).
The effectiveness of these protective measures varies, as do their efficiencies and social effects.