Called Unprepared For Nuclear Terrorism
Experts Critical of Evacuation
By John Mintz Washington Post Staff
Writer Tuesday, May 3, 2005; A01
When asked during the campaign debates to name the
gravest danger facing the United States, President Bush
and challenger Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) gave the same
answer: a nuclear device in the hands of terrorists.
But more than 3 1/2 years after the Sept. 11, 2001,
attacks, the U. S. government has failed to adequately
prepare first responders and the public for a nuclear
strike, according to emergency preparedness and nuclear
experts and federal reports.
Although hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved by
rapidly evacuating people downwind of a radiation cloud,
officials have trained only small numbers of first
responders to prepare for such an event, according to
public health specialists and government documents. And
the information given to the public is flawed and
incomplete, many experts agree.
"The United States is, at the moment, not well prepared
to manage an [emergency] evacuation of this sort in the
relevant time frame," said Richard Falkenrath, former
deputy homeland security adviser and now a fellow at the
Brookings Institution. "The federal government currently
lacks the ability to [rapidly] generate and broadcast
specific, geographically tailored evacuation
instructions" across the country, he said.
Security experts consider a terrorist nuclear strike
highly unlikely because of the difficulty in obtaining
fissionable material and constructing a bomb. But it is a
conceivable scenario, especially in light of the lax
security at many former Soviet nuclear facilities and the
knowledge of atomic scientists in such places as
Two closely held government reports obtained by The
Washington Post -- one by the White House's Homeland
Security Council, the other by the Energy Department --
describe in chilling detail the effects of a nuclear
detonation, using the scenario of a strike on Washington.
They make clear the need for split-second execution by
top officials of the Department of Homeland Security if
downwind communities dozens of miles away are to be saved
-- a level of performance that some experts say is well
beyond officials' ability now.
U. S. officials say they are only in the first stages of
planning ways to communicate with endangered downwind
communities, via radio, television or cell phones.
Members of the public who seek information from Homeland
Security's Web site, Ready. gov, may not be getting the
best advice, experts said.
Take, for example, a Ready. gov graphic showing that
someone a city block from a nuclear blast could save his
or her life by walking around the corner. The text reads,
"Consider if you can get out of the area." Nuclear
specialists say that advice is unhelpful because such a
blast can destroy everything within a radius of as much
as three-quarters of a mile.
"Ready. gov treats a nuclear weapon in this case as if it
were a big truck bomb, which it's not," said Ivan
Oelrich, a physicist who studies nuclear weapons for the
nonprofit Federation of American Scientists. "There's no
information in Ready. gov that would help your chances"
of surviving a nuclear blast or the resulting mushroom
cloud, he said.
Homeland Security officials acknowledge they have lots of
work ahead to prepare for a nuclear strike -- a task they
point out is extraordinarily difficult -- but say they
have made progress.
"A lot of good work's been done, and a lot of federal
resources are poised to respond," said Gil Jamieson, who
helps run the department's programs to unify national,
state and local emergency response efforts. "Can more
work be done? Absolutely."
Department officials also say they have made strides in
the monumental task of establishing standard protocols
and plans among federal agencies, and with state and
local authorities, on how to prepare for and respond to
different types of terrorist attacks.
Homeland Security officials point with pride to the
nuclear response training given to 2,200 first
responders. But domestic defense experts point out there
are 2 million such firefighters, police officers and
emergency medical personnel nationwide.
More of them need crucial training in the dangers of
radiation, how to limit their own exposure to it, how to
triage victims and how to decontaminate them, they say.
Many experts believe the government needs to train
responders in these techniques and, more fundamentally,
decide what their jobs would be in a nuclear attack.
A 2003 report by the Energy Department's National Nuclear
Security Administration (NNSA), designated "For Official
Use Only," said the government lacks rules and standards
for sending first responders into radiated areas to save
people or warn them of approaching fallout. This would
include standards for radiation exposure for firefighters
and how to decide where to deploy responders.
The prospect of a nuclear strike "requires a fundamental
shift in radiological protection policy for members of
the public and emergency responders," the report added.
Officials said work in these areas has barely begun.
In detailing the consequences of a 10-kiloton bomb attack
on Washington, the NNSA document, and another prepared in
July 2004 by the Homeland Security Council (HSC), used
different wind projections and assumptions about the
government's success in evacuating residents.
The HSC document, also stamped "For Official Use Only,"
shows a radioactive plume heading east over Prince
George's and Anne Arundel counties, killing 99,000 to
190,000 people. The NNSA report describes a cloud moving
northeast over Prince George's and Howard counties, and,
assuming less success in evacuation, estimates 300,000
A blast from a 10-kiloton weapon would destroy everything
within a half-mile, the reports say, and cause severe
damage for miles beyond. Many people would suffer "flash
blindness" from the explosion.
First responders would be unlikely to enter the blast
zone but would establish care centers upwind to help
victims who escape, the reports say. "Triage will be a
major issue," the HSC report said, noting that because of
the huge numbers of victims, responders will have to turn
away people too sick from radiation to survive.
In the end, years of cleanup of 3,000 to 5,000 square
miles would be needed, the reports say. They also raise
the possibility of forever abandoning many radiated
neighborhoods. An atomic strike on this country "would
forever change the American psyche, its politics and
worldview," according to the White House report.
The government also has failed to communicate well with
the public about nuclear dangers, terrorism experts
In late 2003, months after the debut of Homeland
Security's Ready. gov Web site, Rand Corp. released a
detailed study advising individuals on responding to
various attack scenarios -- but with starkly different
Ready. gov gave almost no information on which to base a
hide-or-flee decision, beyond advice such as to "Quickly
assess the situation" after a nuclear blast. In general,
it advised going inside, underground if possible, and
fleeing by car rather than on foot.
Rand, which in the 1950s was an architect of U. S.
nuclear doctrine, said going indoors "would provide
little protection in a nuclear attack." It said Ready.
gov's suggestion that people in the blast zone head
underground after a blast is "misleading" because few
people would have time to take that step.
Ready. gov made no mention of the critical factor of
wind. But Rand advised that if wind is carrying smoke and
the mushroom cloud toward people, they should immediately
head perpendicular to it, on foot, for at least a few
miles, to get out of the plume's path. Driving would be
futile because of impassable roads, Rand said.
"Guidance from Ready. gov fails to indicate the time
urgency involved," said Lynn E. Davis, a former
undersecretary of state for arms control who was the Rand
study's lead author. "We must act in a matter of minutes
Homeland Security officials said that some of the
criticisms of Ready. gov are valid, and that they might
change its wording in some places. But they said several
experts they consulted believe miles-high winds could
carry radiation in a different direction from wind on the
"We decided [advice to flee crosswind] was not
necessarily the best guidance for the American people,"
said Lara Shane, a Homeland Security spokeswoman who runs
Department officials said their strategy is not for
people themselves to decide what to do, but for them to
listen for officials' advice over radio or television.
Some emergency response experts, however, pointed out
many radio and TV stations would be off the air.
"The threat information our leaders have given post-9/11
has often been disorganized, not confidence-inspiring,"
added Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University's
National Center for Disaster Preparedness. "It's perilous
to have a system solely dependent on central leadership
to save lives."
Retired Gen. Dennis Reimer, a former Army chief of staff
who is now the director of the Oklahoma-based National
Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, said
he prefers Rand's specificity. "The American people can
handle that," he said. "It's like the Red Cross's
lifesaving tips," he said. "Most of us aren't doctors,
but we can help save lives."