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NNSA, FBI Conclude Radiological Security Exercise at NIEHS in North Carolina

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) announced the completion of a table-top counterterrorism exercise at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Research Triangle Park, N.C. The exercise, Environmental Thunder, was the latest in NNSA’s series of nationwide exercises aimed at giving federal, state and local first response teams and law enforcement critical, hands-on experience in responding to a terrorist attack involving radioactive materials. The exercise covered a broad range of security elements including alarm assessment and response, crisis management, threat assessment, emergency response, consequence management and post-contingency procedures in the event of a terrorist incident.

The Environmental Thunder exercise played out a fictitious scenario with terrorists infiltrating a research facility and attempting to seize control of a high-activity radiological source that, in principle, could be used in radiological dispersal devices (RDDs), commonly referred to as “dirty bombs.” The participating officials worked cooperatively to assess and respond to simulated facility alarms and then manage the crisis as if it were actually happening. The goal of these exercises is to provide first-hand crisis management experience, facilitate coordination between multiple agencies, and improve both alarm response and emergency response methods. Exercises take place in select locations across the country with facilities that house nuclear or high-activity radioactive materials.

“These exercises are critical to improving cooperation among federal, state and local officials, and we welcome the opportunity to work with organizations like the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to ensure effective planning, communication and response coordination,” said Deputy Under Secretary for Counterterrorism and Counterproliferation Steven Aoki. “NNSA’s investments in nuclear and radiological security provide the unique technical knowledge and capabilities that help protect our country against terrorist attacks."

 “Radioactive materials are important and necessary tools in biological research and we must ensure that they are never used as tools of terrorism,” said Bill Fitzgerald, NIEHS Radiation Safety Officer. “Increased security controls along with emergency response planning and drills make us better prepared to confront any malevolent threats.”          

The exercise series is jointly organized and funded by NNSA’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative, NNSA’s Office of Counterterrorism Policy and Cooperation, and the FBI. The participating federal agencies included NNSA, FBI, EPA and NIEHS and were joined for the exercise by the Durham County Sherriff’s Office; Durham Health, Emergency Management, and Fire Departments; and the Parkwood Volunteer Fire Department. State officials from the North Carolina Emergency Management, Public Health, Emergency Medical Services and Highway Patrol also participated, as did the North Carolina National Guard, and Raleigh and Durham city officials.

Preceding the Environmental Thunder exercise, the NIEHS instituted a number of radiological security enhancements with the assistance of NNSA’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative. NNSA, in partnership with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Department of Homeland Security, installs voluntary security upgrades at hospitals and other civilian sites housing high-activity radiological sources that are commonly used in medical procedures and other commercial activities. Doing so reduces the potential for theft or misuse of radiological materials that could be used in a dirty bomb. These voluntary upgrades are in addition to security enhancements required by NRC and state governments since 2006. To learn more, click here.

Started in 1999, NNSA’s Office of Counterterrorism Policy and Cooperation’s WMD Counterterrorism Exercise Program took on an expanded role following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. Since the program began, nearly 8,000 international, federal, state and local officials have participated in 98 different exercises in more than 20 States and the District of Columbia. To promote full participation by state and local officials, Silent Thunder exercises are unclassified and utilize open source information for scenario development.

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Established by Congress in 2000, NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for enhancing national security through the military application of nuclear science. NNSA maintains and enhances the safety, security, reliability and performance of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile without nuclear testing; works to reduce global danger from weapons of mass destruction; provides the U.S. Navy with safe and effective nuclear propulsion; and responds to nuclear and radiological emergencies in the U.S. and abroad.