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'Dirty' Bomb's Impact Studied

August 22, 2004|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

A radioactive "dirty" bomb detonated at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach could cause a $34-billion loss to the nation's economy, according to researchers at a two-day symposium that focused on the economic impact of terrorism.

The scenario was one of many discussed by experts Saturday at the conference, which was hosted by USC's new Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events.

Researchers from about a dozen universities and think tanks debated the potential costs, including the effect a radiological attack would have on the nation's power grid, the impact on transportation if bridges in Seattle were destroyed and the progress of U.S. efforts to upgrade port security.

Professors from USC and Texas Southern University in Houston created a mathematical model to predict the cost of a dirty bomb at the L.A. and Long Beach ports, the third-largest port complex in the world and the largest in the nation. That model, they said, could eventually be applied to other locations.

Howard Shatz of the Public Policy Institute of California described the complex overhaul of the country's port security, which relies heavily on cooperation with other nations and on additional training for U.S. agencies.

"The Coast Guard has to learn new things it has never learned, like a live boarding of a hostile ship," Shatz said.

Clark Abt, who runs a social and economic policy research and consulting firm, said it was imperative that the United States pay for overseas scanners to detect nuclear weapons before they reach the U.S. coastline.

"The Coast Guard and Customs are used to drugs," Abt said. "Getting most of it is good enough. But they can't afford to allow a single nuke into New York Harbor."

But Chip White, a professor of transportation at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said rigorous inspections overseas were already hampering exports.

"Containers are missing [connecting with] sailings to be inspected," said White, who studied inspections at Singapore's port. "Ships don't wait for containers."

The terrorism center at USC received a $12-million grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security in March to develop tools to assess the possible outcomes of an attack.

"9/11 was a failure of imagination," said Randy Hall, co-director of the center, on why the attack was not predicted and prevented. "This university center has a mission to exchange ideas to look at long-term threats."

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