Just before the start of the two-day Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, President Obama underscored the stakes: “the single biggest threat to U.S. security — both short term, medium term and long term — would be the possibility of a terrorist organization obtaining a nuclear weapon…And we know that organizations like al-Qaeda are in the process of trying to secure a nuclear weapon — a weapon of mass destruction that they have no compunction at using.”
Much of the focus of the Summit is to continue to monitor and improve the control of nuclear materials from around the world and keep them out of the hands of terrorists and rogue nations. The hope is that this work will prevent the actual use of a nuclear weapon. However, as this is such an important issue, I would argue that the government should also be doing more to inform and prepare the public for a possibility of such an incident. Because contrary to popular opinion, there may be concrete steps that citizens might be able to do to mitigate the impact of such a disaster.
Last summer, I wrote a post about an Institute of Medicine report, “Assessing Medical Preparedness to Respond to a Terrorist Nuclear Event: Workshop Report.” It said that while a home-made nuclear bomb detonated in U.S. city would likely kill hundreds of thousands of people, there are actually things that can be done to increase the survivability for many others. That is, the committee argues, if the public is informed of those steps in advance. According to an article in New Scientist magazine:
as catastrophic as such an attack would be, it would not level an entire city, and a timely response could save many lives. Recent advances in techniques for mapping the path of radioactive fallout after an attack, combined with novel therapies for treating radiation victims, will improve survival chances, the report says.
“Clearly there would be loss of life, but it’s not hopeless,” says Georges Benjamin, head of the panel of doctors and public health officials that was convened by the National Academy of Sciences to assess the nation’s level of preparedness for such an attack. “We feel that there are things that one can do to mitigate it.”
Just knowing about the value of ’shelter in place’, for example, could be a lifesaver, according to the report:
For many people, the safest option would be to seek shelter in buildings or underground. Just staying inside could slash the immediate death toll from radiation by up to a factor of 100, or even 1000, [Fred] Mettler [of the New Mexico Veterans Administration Health Center] says. However, people must be told this in advance. “Without prior education, it would be a horrible issue,” he says.
President Obama At The Nuclear Security Summit (Reuters Photo)
In 2008, the Senate Homeland Security Committee held a series of interesting hearings on nuclear preparedness which also produced some tangible things people might be able to do in the event a nuclear attack. I wrote in a post, “What You Should Do If A Nuclear Bomb Explodes Nearby“:
The headline might strike some readers as tongue in cheek — as if you can really do anything if a nuclear bomb explodes nearby. And, clearly if you are too close, there is little you will be able to do. However, it is less well know that there are things that to you can do if you are in the vicinity that might help you and your family survive such a catastrophe.
That was the message of a number of witnesses at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing in April, which is part of the same series of hearings on nuclear preparedness mentioned in the last post. Since I just argued that there was a need for more public education in that area, I decided to do a little of it on the blog.
Though the hearings have fargely focused on the policy and implementation issues around the work of first responders, there have been some helpful tips for the public discussed as well. And I thought I would pass them on.
I don’t expect anyone to commit every tip and instruction to memory. But I think it can be very helpful if people have heard some of the advice at least once. I think it’s even helpful to know that there are actually some actions to mitigate the impact of a nuclear explosion, which is not what many people think.
In fact, the Committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), said during the hearing that she thinks Americans have “gone backwards” since the 1950s and 1960s when it comes to knowing the facts about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.
One important point that came up in the hearing is that fleeing a nuclear blast is often not the best strategy. According to an article by CQ’s Daniel Fowler:
“The natural inclination is to flee and what they’re going to do is they’re going to get caught in gridlock,” said Cham E. Dallas, director of the Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense at the University of Georgia. “They’re going to get caught in gridlock because everyone else will be fleeing, and that is not viable. Most people should not flee” because they won’t be affected.
Ashton B. Carter, co-director of the Preventive Defense Project at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, echoed the sentiment. “Certainly most of my friends and family who don’t do this, they think that a nuclear weapon levels an entire city and that anybody nearby better get out of the way or they’re going to get covered in radiation,” Carter said after the hearing. “That’s just not true.”
In fact, Dallas’ written testimony said, “The highest impacts of radiation generally occur when people are caught in the open, or are tied up in traffic jams trying to escape in vehicles which provide little protection against fallout.”
As part of his testimony, Dallas presented visuals of the impact of a 10-kiloton (kt) detonation near the White House. He said the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were only slightly larger. Both Dallas and Carter said 10 kt is the standard reference.
“It could be expected that there would be at least 150,000 serious injuries and that at least 70 percent of these could involve fatalities,” Dallas said in his written testimony. “Depending on the resources made available at the time, it is likely that there would be an attempt to evacuate as many as 500,000 people from the area, though the efficacy of such an attempt is dubious.”
“This would be the worst disaster to befall the country, but it’s not the case, as many believe, that the entire city would be destroyed,” Carter said after the hearing. “Most of the people in this city would be unaffected — and those that were affected but not killed would have a great chance to save themselves.”
Carter said most Washington residents wouldn’t need to leave their homes even if the nuclear weapon went off downtown “because the radioactive debris would be carried downwind from them.”
In response to a question from Chairman Joseph I. Lieberman (I-CT) about what the most important thing the federal government can do to be prepared to respond the day after a nuclear attack, Dallas said his priority would be to get the truth out about the limited, but serious, impact of such a scenario.
“The misconceptions of the public about radiation are incredible,” he said.
Clearly, the first priority in nuclear security is trying to prevent the use of the weapons as is the objective the Summit. However, as part of the nation’s nuclear preparedness some attention should be paid to informing and readying the public just in case.