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.
- The entire New York Times article, “U.S. Rethinks Strategy for the Unthinkable:” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/science/16terror.html
- National Security Council, “Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation, 2nd edition:” http://hps.org/hsc/documents/Planning_Guidance_for_Response_to_a_Nuclear_Detonation-2nd_Edition_FINAL.pdf
- Institute of Medicine, “Assessing Medical Preparedness to Respond to a Terrorist Nuclear Event. Workshop Report:” http://www.iom.edu/Reports/2009/NucEventPrepWS.aspx
- Center for Biosecurity of UPMC, “Preparing to Save Lives and Recover After a Nuclear Detonation:” http://www.upmc-biosecurity.org/website/events/2010_nuke/index.html
- (Warning: a little self promotion ahead) Emergency Management, “White House Homeland Security Council Urges Nuclear Attack Response Planning:” http://www.emergencymgmt.com/disaster/White-House-Homeland-Security.html
- If you are wondering about the title of this post: Blind Boys of Alabama – Atom Bomb