A Risk and Economic Analysis of Dirty Bomb Attacks on the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach


*Address correspondence to H. Rosoff, Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA; rosoff@usc.edu.


This article analyzes possible terrorist attacks on the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach using a radiological dispersal device (RDD, also known as a “dirty bomb”) to shut down port operations and cause substantial economic and psychological impacts. The analysis is an exploratory investigation of a combination of several risk analysis tools, including scenario generation and pruning, project risk analysis, direct consequence modeling, and indirect economic impact assessment. We examined 36 attack scenarios and reduced them to two plausible or likely scenarios using qualitative judgments. For these two scenarios, we conducted a project risk analysis to understand the tasks terrorists need to perform to carry out the attacks and to determine the likelihood of the project's success. The consequences of a successful attack are described in terms of a radiological plume model and resulting human health and economic impacts. Initial findings suggest that the chances of a successful dirty bomb attack are about 10–40% and that high radiological doses are confined to a relatively small area, limiting health effects to tens or at most hundreds of latent cancers, even with a major release. However, the economic consequences from a shutdown of the harbors due to the contamination could result in significant losses in the tens of billions of dollars, including the decontamination costs and the indirect economic impacts due to the port shutdown. The implications for countering a dirty bomb attack, including the protection of the radiological sources and intercepting an ongoing dirty bomb attack are discussed.