Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 16, 2010

“Everybody’s worried ’bout the atomic bomb”

Filed under: Radiological & Nuclear Threats — by Arnold Bogis on December 16, 2010

Reporter William Broad of the New York Times has an interesting article in today’s paper on the difficulties with preparing the public for a nuclear terrorist attack.  The piece, “U.S. Rethinks Strategy for the Unthinkable,” answers one important question while raising several others.

The question answered, or at least the one for which an answer is offered: “Immediately following a nuclear detonation, do you tell people to shelter-in-place, evacuate, or a mixture of both depending on their location?”  The answer: everyone should shelter-in-place.

Suppose the unthinkable happened, and terrorists struck New York or another big city with an atom bomb. What should people there do? The government has a surprising new message: Do not flee. Get inside any stable building and don’t come out till officials say it’s safe.

The advice is based on recent scientific analyses showing that a nuclear attack is much more survivable if you immediately shield yourself from the lethal radiation that follows a blast, a simple tactic seen as saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Even staying in a car, the studies show, would reduce casualties by more than 50 percent; hunkering down in a basement would be better by far.

The Department of Homeland Security financed a multiagency modeling effort led by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The scientists looked at Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other big cities, using computers to simulate details of the urban landscape and terrorist bombs.

The results were revealing. For instance, the scientists found that a bomb’s flash would blind many drivers, causing accidents and complicating evacuation.

The big surprise was how taking shelter for as little as several hours made a huge difference in survival rates.

Health physicist Brooke Buddemeier of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory explains the results of this modeling that point to potentially huge numbers of lives saved:

If people in Los Angeles a mile or more from ground zero of an attack took no shelter, Mr. Buddemeier said, there would be 285,000 casualties from fallout in that region.

Taking shelter in a place with minimal protection, like a car, would cut that figure to 125,000 deaths or injuries, he said. A shallow basement would further reduce it to 45,000 casualties. And the core of a big office building or an underground garage would provide the best shelter of all.

Fantastic news!  Right?  One small problem: shouldn’t the public know what they should do?

On Jan. 16, 2009 — four days before Mr. Bush left office — the White House issued a 92-page handbook lauding “pre-event preparedness.” But it was silent on the delicate issue of how to inform the public.

Soon after Mr. Obama arrived at the White House, he embarked a global campaign to fight atomic terrorism and sped up domestic planning for disaster response. A senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the new administration began a revision of the Bush administration’s handbook to address the issue of public communication.

Problem solved! Or is it?

The agenda hit a speed bump. Las Vegas was to star in the nation’s first live exercise meant to simulate a terrorist attack with an atom bomb, the test involving about 10,000 emergency responders. But casinos and businesses protested, as did Senator Harry Reid of Nevada. He told the federal authorities that it would scare away tourists.

Late last year, the administration backed down.

Apparently what happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas.  At least if it is a nuclear explosion anyway.

This article highlights a lot of good ideas, but exposes the biggest underlying obstacle to implementation.  We have seen the obstacle, and it is us.

Administration officials argue that the cold war created an unrealistic sense of fatalism about a terrorist nuclear attack. “It’s more survivable than most people think,” said an official deeply involved in the planning, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The key is avoiding nuclear fallout.”

The administration is making that argument with state and local authorities and has started to do so with the general public as well. Its Citizen Corps Web site says a nuclear detonation is “potentially survivable for thousands, especially with adequate shelter and education.” A color illustration shows which kinds of buildings and rooms offer the best protection from radiation.

In June, the administration released to emergency officials around the nation an unclassified planning guide 130 pages long on how to respond to a nuclear attack. It stressed citizen education, before any attack.

Involving the public more deeply in all facets of homeland security is a brilliant idea, and not a particularly new one.  Yet the concept always seem to flounder on what form that involvement should take and how to reach the desired audience with the desired message.

Get a kit, make a plan, be informed” or it’s variants have been pushed by FEMA and partners for several years, yet public preparedness levels change little.  “See something, say something” offers the notion of a dialog with the public, yet the public is not informed what it should consider suspicious.

Now imagine adding nuclear-specific knowledge to the mix.  What percentage of the public will remember this advice if they find themselves the victims of a nuclear terrorist attack?  Don’t get me wrong, I would be a supporter of any such education campaign that got traction with the public.  I am pessimistic because after seeing the difficulties encountered by Ready.gov and other related preparedness programs to have an impact, these methods don’t seem to offer much hope of success:

The document said that planners had an obligation to help the public “make effective decisions” and that messages for predisaster campaigns might be tailored for schools, businesses and even water bills.

Messages from the federal government tailored for specific audiences are unlikely to stick.  Engaging those schools, businesses, churches, and other organizations to share those messages with their employees, students, members, etc. is a more difficult route, yet one offering a greater chance of success.

To prepare this nation for something as cataclysmic as nuclear terrorism, we must think bottom up, not top down.

Further reading:

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9 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 16, 2010 @ 8:25 am

Well Arnold an interesting and informative post. Here is some history and let you and readers decide.

Knowing that NUDETS and civil security would be a big issue post 9/11/01 and the public’s involvement in same I was asked to participate in a taskforce that led to the production of a report by CSIS managed by Amanda Dory called “Civil Security”! It was issued in August 2003 if memory serves and is still available. It wrestled with the notion of public involvement and civil security and traced some of the opposition that developed to the former federal civil defense program and to some degree resulted in ending that program. It also utilized the term “resilience” in one of the first published efforts involving that term.

Shelter was a major strategy for the civil defense program and evacuation of the population goes back to recognition that the Soviets might evacuate in a buildup to a first nucelar strike and the so-called “nuclear blackmail” issue was raised. So evacuation was focused upon by the Carter administration in a series of PDs during that term. In other words, evacuation was pre-explosion or pre-incident or event. Hosting issues killed that scenario politically.

Previously I had been involved in the “you can run but you cannot hide” conundrum including a total of 5 days under oath as FEMA shifted from a shelter-in-place to an evacuation protective action recommendation around nuclear power plants focusing on the Seabrook Nuclear Power station. FEMA’s position was eventually supported by NRC in its published guidance for core melt reactor events. The orginal position of FEMA had been driven by confusion caused by the former civil defense programs huge investment in sheltering which started in the days in which blast and heat from an explosion is enormous but not so much was known about the plumes of ionizing radiation and depositional material. Thus the confusion and focus on even family shelters.

So where are we? In January 2009 the first version of the RESPONSE to A NUDET publication appeared now supplanted by the edition mentioned in the post. That first edition had numerous technical defects and in a remarkable recognition of error the 2nd version was published relatively soon recognizing some of the errors and correcting them but not all. The most important thing is that neither the NAS [National Academy of Science] or the NRC {National Research Council] nor the leading technical organization the Health Physics Society of America has reviewed and approved of this second publication. That should be done but of course we also have no idea of who participated in the second edition, what the review process was, or who exactly [by name and rank] signed off on the document or in fact approved it technically. Of course this is highly representative of the shoddy review and development process in the Homeland Security arena and casts doubt on any conclusions reached.

Well hoping DHS can do better! And note for the record that the RADEF (Radiation Defense Program) ended by President William Jefferson Clinton and his FEMA director over the objections of the NSC staff has left a huge gap in dosimetry and radiation detection and protection at the local level.

Non-technician that I am I still get calls from police and fire personnel who have discovered FEMA dosimenters and wonder what to do with them and how they should be used. They often indicate they have tried to get an answer from FEMA. I point out that dosimeters must be calibrated to be useful and have a life cycle. These are therefore only souvineers of the civil defense program. Once there was strong advocacy for giving dosimeters to all Americans who wanted them in FEMA. This was never funded and never FEMA policy.

Well again an interesting post. The bottom line people need to be given a PAR or PAD depending on a difficult calcualtion by the PUBLIC SAFETY and EM and HS types depending on the incident or event. Most lack the training or expertise to make this calculation. Thus, it is not shelter or evacuate but possibly both as the possibility of airborne ionizing radiation or depositional material exists or actually occurs.

Again part of this effort goes back to the ridicule heaped on Secretary Ridge and his Duct Tape speech which occurred just as Amanda Dory’s document was being issued and because the press was not given briefings or background on the issue this important and potentially lifeprotecting decision process was totally rejected. Most believe that even with adequate supplies of duct tape and knowledge and ability, a de minimus portion of the affected population no doubt, shelter in place in a single family residence will allow effective sheltering for no more than two hours.

So the beat goes on and recommend that the use of “resilience” by Amanda be studied carefully now that it is the new paradigm for preparedness generally.

Comment by Jason

December 16, 2010 @ 10:12 am

Okay but the “Secretary Ridge and his Duct Tape speech” was ridiculous and the ridicule was justified. Here’s the thing, how much time and energy (and most importantly, money) should state and local planners put into preparing for a nuclear terrorist event that may never happen? Say as opposed to real emergencies and crises that happen every day?

This is not a new argument in civil defense issues. Mayors and governors expect the federal government to ensure that the attack never happens, so that way they don’t have to worry about the consequences of an actual attack. So why should we be surprised that there is no major demand for public information material on “avoiding the impact of a nuke in your city” or for that matter, “mitigating effects of an anthrax or smallpox attack” (since bioterror is the real threat, Graham-Talent tell us).

How much money are you willing to spend on dosimeters and training, developing public fallout shelters, stockpiling medical countermeasures, building up medical treatment facilities, when the terrorist capability to cause mass casualties isn’t really there (WMD-related, outside of big planes)? Well if it’s federal money, we all have our hands out, don’t we? But when the chant comes about “cutting programs” and reducing the deficit, all of a sudden, you’re surprised that this area remains underfunded?

Comment by John

December 16, 2010 @ 11:03 am

We spent roughly $2.8 BILLION since 9/11 on nuclear detection according to GAO.

What did we get? Very expensive scanners which don’t work very well. NOTHING for consequence management.

If you can’t find the needle in the haystack, at least buy some BANDAIDS for those of us who get stuck with the consequences.

We could have bought ourselves a pretty good restart on the old shelter program for that. As it is, we have no shelter, no water, no food, no RADEF equipment.

Only the Pres and his buddies have any protection whatsoever.

Congress should zero-out the budget for presidential protection until we start spending something for the people who pay for it.

Comment by Mark Chubb

December 16, 2010 @ 9:55 pm

A story in today’s New Zealand newspapers highlights the findings of Julia Becker of the Institute for Geological and Nuclear Sciences that indicates residents of Christchurch weren’t very prepared for the shallow M7.1 earthquake that struck there on September 4, 2010 but they demonstrated exceptional resilience nonetheless.

I can tell you from personal experience working there that no more people had prepared plans or built kits or made specific arrangements to stay informed and keep in touch with family, friends and coworkers than we see here in the U.S. This was borne out by regular survey research conducted to measure the performance of public education and information programs administered by emergency managers.

What these surveys did not tell us, but which proved vitally important nonetheless was how well people would use their stores of human and social capital. Sound practical knowledge and a sense of community matter a lot.

The research Arnold cites suggests common sense precautions, which may be far more common than the panic reactions assumed by too many public officials, matter too. Is it time for us to abandon some of our old chestnuts and simply ask people what they would do if we didn’t give them any advice or assistance at all?

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 17, 2010 @ 3:46 am

Mark! The “Theraputic” post-disaster community”?

Arnold! Hoping you read and digested the over 200 reader comments on the NY Times article! I found many of great interest.

And the NY Times left the comment period open for an unusually long time on this article.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 18, 2010 @ 8:27 am

I tried to post the issue of this post on the new FEMA blog but was unsuccessful. Whether intentional or not apparently the tough issues will be avoided on that blog. A wonderful article in Computer Week mag on the “End of Blogging” identified the problem of many public affairs efforts by business and others that call postings blogs but not really exchanging information but in fact putting out propaganda for that organization. So thanks posters here for tolearatino of my sometimes off beat suggestions and comments. I do my best to treat each post on this blog with dignity and understanding to the extent that I can do so. So thanks again.

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