India is still coming to terms with the aftermath of the terrorist attack on an army camp at Uri. More names have been added to the long list of Indians who have died in incidents that have been conceived and executed with the support of elements in the ‘deep state’ of Pakistan. Given that Rawalpindi shows no inclination to abandon its strategy of inflicting terror on India, one cannot but be prepared to handle acts of terrorism that may breach new thresholds in the future. Preparedness and response for a radiological emergency is, therefore, a task that the country must plan for.
A news item in the Times of India of 22 August 2016 reported the conduct of a mock drill to rehearse Indian preparedness for a radiological emergency at an airport. The news was welcome for two reasons. Firstly, reportage of such exercises helps reassure the public that the relevant agencies are duly practicing preparedness to handle such emergencies. This also has an impact on restoring public confidence in nuclear power in general, which was badly shaken by the Fukushima episode of 2011. Secondly, the handling of an off-site radiological emergency involves the coordinated participation of a number of stakeholders. 20 agencies reportedly participated in the exercise. It is only through periodically repeated drills that requisite rapport and confidence in joint operations of this nature can be built.
It is natural that emergency preparedness and response strategies (EPRs) are relatively better evolved and comparatively easier to execute when a nuclear emergency is confined to the nuclear plant or site. Such crises primarily involve quick handling by the operating staff who are better equipped with technical knowledge and also more familiar with and better trained to abide by stringent standard operating procedures (SOPs) that must be followed in crisis. It is only in case of a severe accident at plant site that other civilian agencies need to be included in consequence management.
In contrast, in case of off-site, radiological emergencies that could happen anywhere, the involvement of the public necessarily requires the participation of many governmental and non-governmental agencies for crisis management. Some places likely to face such events are predictable, such as where radiological sources are in use – hospitals, industries, etc. But, discovery of stolen or maliciously use of orphan sources or acts of radiological terrorism through dirty bombs could occur anywhere. Emergency preparedness in such cases requires a very high level of quick detection, assessment and response from both nuclear and non-nuclear administrations.
Cooperation among many national and international stakeholders is a necessity in case of a radiological emergency. Law and order agencies, fire fighting and medical services, traffic officials and first responders designated by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) must all be part of the team to quickly bring the situation under control. Above all, an effective public communication strategy must be available to use the media as a friend rather than letting it give its own spin to the crisis. Relationships built with press and local populace during moments of quiet would go a long way in communicating credibly and with confidence in times of crisis.
Over the years, India has judiciously invested in building organisational and technological expertise in EPR. The NDMA has published elaborate and precise guidelines for dealing with such emergencies. Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) has developed and employs sophisticated tools to cater for quick detection, impact assessment and response. BARC has developed special mobile and fixed monitoring equipment that can be used for detection of radioactivity and identification of contaminated areas which can assist in correct movement of the responders and evacuees. At the second level, integrated assessment software is able to predict a rapid evaluation of damage from blast, fires etc and thereby help allocate medical, fire-fighting facilities etc. Most importantly, a software tool such as the geographical information system (GIS) provides maps of areas with location of roads, buildings, hospitals, etc in order to help plan routes of evacuation or influx of responders.
However, even the best laid out plans and available technological tools can be stymied if a few common-sense issues are not adequately addressed. The first of these is the prime requirement of inter-agency cooperation. Given the involvement of varied types of responders, not all of whom have radiological emergency as their daily top-most priority, it is quite likely that each would have a different understanding or level of commitment to participation in collaborative mock drills. Caught with usual manpower and resource shortages, over-burdened services are likely to accord less priority to an event that is seen as of low probability. However, the high consequence potential of such an occurrence is the precise reason that demands the highest attention. Conduct of mock drills must be undertaken in the spirit of joint planning for an operation and there should be adequate mechanisms for feedback assimilation to effectuate improvements.
2016 has seen a rise in terrorist incidents across the world. Vulnerabilities of regions once thought to be immune to such risks stand exposed as the US and countries in Europe and Asia have undergone such strikes. Each has struggled to minimise risks as well as improve consequence mitigation. Fortunately, no act of nuclear or radiological terrorism has yet been experienced. But there is no doubt that a radiological emergency would be a mammoth operation of managing not only the physical safety and movement of the public but also involve dealing with many psychosomatic issues.
The psychological impact of an act of radiological terrorism would in fact invoke greater damage than any real threat from radioactivity. It is for this reason that dirty bombs are described as weapons of mass disruption since they would cause greater panic, at the physical, socio-economic and psychological levels. Being neighbours with a country which is not only the fountainhead of terrorism but is also flush with fissile material, a radiological emergency is a threat for India. Well planned and regularly rehearsed EPR strategies, which include education of the public, must be accorded due priority as one important plank of addressing this threat perception.