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Radiation and Nuclear Countermeasures Research Program


Over the past decade, and especially since September 11, 2001, the growing threat of terrorism has become a primary national security priority. There has also been increased awareness that terrorists might employ unconventional tactics and weapons, including weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, the 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway system with Sarin involved a chemical weapon, and the 2001 attacks in New York, Washington, and Florida with a highly lethal preparation of anthrax spores delivered through the mail involved a biological weapon. The number of known terrorist organizations with a global reach and the increased rate of proliferation and transfer of technical information through the Internet raise the possibility that more attacks with chemical, biological, radiological, or even nuclear weapons may occur in the years to come.

Several terrorist threat scenarios could result in segments of the population being exposed to ionizing radiation. These include: contamination of food or water with radioactive material, placement of radiation sources in public locations, detonation of a radiological dispersal device (often referred to as an RDD or a "dirty bomb") that spreads radioactive material over a populated area, and attacks on nuclear power plants or high-level nuclear waste storage facilities. The worst scenario would be the detonation of a nuclear explosive device, which, in addition to causing enormous destruction from blast and heat, would produce an intense burst of gamma radiation and large quantities of radioactive "fallout."

To respond to these threats, the federal government is committed to increasing the availability of medical countermeasures that could be used in the aftermath of an attack involving the release of radioactive material. The mission of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is to conduct basic and translational biomedical research to improve public health. Within NIH, NIAID is the lead Institute for the development of medical countermeasures against infectious agents that might be used in a terrorist attack and for research on immune homeostasis and immune reconstitution. For these reasons, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has tasked NIH, and NIAID in particular, with developing a robust research program to accelerate the development and deployment of new medical countermeasures for exposure to radiation.

To guide the research program, NIAID has developed the NIH Strategic Plan and Research Agenda for Medical Countermeasures Against Radiological and Nuclear Threats (PDF). This document is limited to research that will lead to new and effective medical countermeasures to assess, diagnose, and treat civilians exposed to radiation and to mitigate the harmful effects of such exposure to the greatest extent possible. Issues such as remediation methods and environmental detection technologies will be addressed by other agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The Strategic Plan and Research Agenda is intended to unify and strengthen the radiation research community, promote increased collaboration, and facilitate transition from research to product development. NIH will work closely with HHS to prioritize the research and development activities in this ambitious agenda with the resources available and as one component of the larger national biodefense research agenda. In 2012, NIAID published the NIH Strategic Plan and Research Agenda for Medical Countermeasures Against Radiological and Nuclear Threats Progress Report (PDF). This report covers research progress from 2005 to 2011 and outlines plans for 2012 to 2016.  

Program Highlights

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Last Updated July 10, 2014