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Thinking about the unthinkable: Economic consequences of a nuclear attack

January 2006
Barbara Reichmuth has spent the past 12 months thinking about the unthinkable: if a major U.S. city were the target of a radiological or nuclear attack, could we afford to clean it up? Barbara, Greg Holter, Steve Short, and Tom Wood, researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, were asked by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to look at the economic consequences of a radiological or nuclear attack on the United States. This analysis was conducted in the context of a series of case studies chartered by the DHS at four U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories to define and evaluate countermeasure architectures (detection, interdiction, and mitigation) and systems for protecting the United States against the threat of terrorist attack using nuclear or radiological weapons. This charter has since been transitioned to the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office. "I've seen estimates of $35 billion up to $300 billion to clean up the World Trade Center in New York after 9/11," said Barbara. But a nuclear bomb is not like the explosions that destroyed the World Trade Center. After the immediate devastation of the initial blast, comes radioactive contamination in the form of fallout which can extend hundreds of miles from the initial impact. Efforts to cleanup this contamination could cost billions of dollars and take decades to accomplish depending upon the magnitude of the event and the cleanup level employed. PNNL estimated the costs of decontamination, decommissioning, and disposal of contaminated debris, along with several other costs: the cost to evacuate and relocate people in the contaminated area; the cost to replace or rebuild destroyed property or to compensate owners for the loss of use of this property including business income loss; and the indirect economic costs of lost businesses to the local, regional, and national economy along with lowered property values and loss of tourism. They also looked at the loss of productivity from earnings forgone -- literally the value of the human lives lost, as defined in the strict lexicon of an economist by their lost earnings potential alone. Bottom line -- If one 13-kiloton bomb hit New York City, clean up and other costs could approach the level of the entire U.S. gross domestic product in 2005. "That's not just government expenditures, that's the entire output of the U.S. economy, every factory, store and business, for a full year," said Barbara. And, Barbara cautions that PNNL's numbers are conservative because there are many things they don't account for, including the psychological impacts of widespread destruction and the immediate and long-term medical costs of caring for the wounded and those suffering radiation-induced illnesses. Also, PNNL's estimates are based on typical meteorological conditions, not worse-case, which could result in worse consequences from radioactive fallout than PNNL's estimates. Barbara also noted long-term cleanup activities probably wouldn't be initiated for at least a year. This delay would allow about 90% of the radioactivity to decay, although some long-lived isotopes would remain radioactive for tens or hundreds of years. PNNL used two primary models for developing its economic evaluation methodology: the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Study of the September 11 attack and the Sandia National Laboratories RadTran V Economic Model. For simplicity, PNNL looked at only three sizes of nuclear weapons - 0.7-kT, 13-kT, 100-kT - and one large 10,000-Curie cesium radiological dispersion device (RDD) or dirty bomb. PNNL compared economic consequences for detonations at five U.S. locations ranging from isolated rural to high-density urban: Lukeville, AZ; Charleston, SC; Detroit, MI; San Ysidro, CA; and New York City. PNNL found that costs of cleanup varied considerably depending on what cleanup level was employed. PNNL looked at several existing sources of standards and guidance, ranging from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) dose limit of 15 millirems per year to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC's) established dose limit for workers of 5 rem/yr. For comparison, the worldwide average background dose for a human being is about 0.35 rem per year, mostly from cosmic radiation and natural isotopes in the earth. The decontamination costs alone to clean up New York City to the 15 millirem/yr dose limit after detonation of a 13-kT nuclear bomb would be approximately $4 trillion, not counting other economic losses PNNL estimated. If decontamination was conducted to a standard of 5 rem/yr, costs would be to under $1 trillion. Cleanup costs varied enormously by population density, ranging from $93 million/km2 for farm or range land with less than 50 people/km2 to $24 billion/km2 for very-high-density urban areas of greater than 10,000 people/km2. This cost was tied to the amount of land that needed to be cleaned up. For example with a 100-kT nuclear device blast in the rural area, if the land is cleaned up to the EPA 15 mrem/yr standard, 235,887 km2 would need to be cleaned up. If they cleaned up to the least conservative standard, the NRC 5 rem/yr dose, than only 802 km2 would need to be cleaned up. Cleanup costs also varied by level of decontamination from $130 million/km2 for a slightly-contaminated urban area to $275 million/km2 for a heavily-contaminated urban. This cost actually exceeded the property value in the RADTRAN model so demolishing was recommended over decommissioning. "At some point it may become so cost prohibitive to cleanup, given current technologies, that you may decide to sacrifice an area, i.e., not clean it up," said Barbara. A chilling thought if that area is Manhattan, or Washington DC, or your own home town. For more information, contact Environmental, Safety and Health Systems Product Line Manager Kelvin Soldat, 375-6810.

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