Government agencies lack the capability to deal quickly and efficiently with a so-called dirty bomb attack on the United States, members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Government Management Subcommittee were told Thursday.
"EPA's analysis of the nation's existing radiological laboratory capacity revealed a significant capacity gap," Thomas Dunne, EPA's associate administrator of homeland security, testified. "This capacity gap will result in a lack of timely, reliable and interpretable data and will delay national and local response and consequence management activities."
A recent investigation by the House Science Committee found that the United States has a shortage of laboratories to test individuals exposed to radiation after a dirty bomb attack.
Asked by Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., what needs to be done, Dunne said the labs "are not going to stay in business unless there's some revenue involved."
He said there are fewer incidents that call for radiological labs and decontamination equipment outside of an attack, intimating that if the government wants the capability in place, it will have to pay for it.
Dunne said that storage capacity for contaminated soil, water and other debris is limited as well.
"We need to improve storage; it just doesn't exist," he said. "Nobody's going to build these things unless there's a reason," he said.
Radiological countermeasures, like drugs that would work to decontaminate people's bodies if they had ingested radiation, also are years away.
Richard Hatchett, associate director for radiation countermeasure research and emergency preparedness at the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, said such countermeasures are in the "early stages of development and face a long road before they are available" to the public.
The testimony did not serve to make Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Government Management Subcommittee Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, feel confident.
He said it was not a question of "if" a dirty bomb attack comes, but "when."
"We must be prepared for such an eventuality," Akaka said, about a dirty bomb, citing the lack of coordination by government agencies in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.