Experts: U. S.
unprepared for nuclear terror attack
"...attempting to evacuate
could "put you on a crowded freeway where you'll be
stuck in traffic and get the maximum radiation
exposure." Yet, "...the only choice for most
people would be to flee" because they are
By Greg Gordon McClatchy
Thu, Mar. 01, 2007
WASHINGTON - Although the Bush administration has
warned repeatedly about the threat of a terrorist
nuclear attack and spent more than $300 billion to
protect the homeland, the government remains
ill-prepared to respond to a nuclear catastrophe.
Experts and government documents suggest that, absent a
major preparedness push, the U. S. response to a
mushroom cloud could be worse than the debacle after
Hurricane Katrina, possibly contributing to civil
disorder and costing thousands of lives.
States is unprepared to mitigate the consequences of a
nuclear attack," Pentagon analyst John
Brinkerhoff concluded in a July 31, 2005, draft of a
confidential memo to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We
were unable to find any group or office with a coherent
approach to this very important aspect of homeland
"This is a bad
situation. The threat of a nuclear attack is real, and
action is needed now to learn how to deal with
Col. Jill Morgenthaler, Illinois' director of homeland
security, said there's a "disconnect" between President
Bush's and Vice President Dick Cheney's nuclear threat
talk and the administration's actions.
"I don't see money being focused on actual response and
mitigation to a nuclear threat," she said.
Interviews by McClatchy Newspapers with more than 15
radiation and emergency preparedness experts and a
review of internal documents revealed:
has yet to launch an educational program, akin
to the Cold War-era civil defense campaign promoting
fallout shelters, to teach Americans how to shield
themselves from radiation, especially from the fallout
plume, which could deposit deadly particles up to 100
miles from ground zero.
Analysts estimate that as many as 300,000 emergency
workers would be needed after a nuclear attack, but
predict that the radiation would scare many of them
away from the disaster site.
Hospital emergency rooms wouldn't be able to handle the
surge of people who were irradiated or the many more
who feared they were.
Medical teams would have to improvise to treat what
could be tens of thousands of burn victims because most
cities have only one or two available burn-unit beds.
Cham Dallas, director of the University of Georgia's
Center for Mass Destruction Defense, called the
predicament "the worst link in our health care
Several drugs are in development and one is especially
promising, but the government hasn't acquired any
significant new medicine to counteract radiation's
devastating effects on victims' blood-forming bone
Over the last three years, several federal agencies
have taken some steps in nuclear disaster planning. The
Department of Health and Human Services has drawn up
"playbooks" for a range of attack scenarios and created
a Web site to instruct emergency responders in treating
The Energy Department's Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory is geared to use real-time weather data,
within minutes of a bombing, to create a computer model
that charts the likely path of a radioactive fallout
plume so that the government can warn affected people
to take shelter or evacuate. The government also has
modeled likely effects in blast zones.
Capt. Ann Knebel, the U. S. Public Health Service's
deputy preparedness chief, said her agency is using the
models to understand how many people in different zones
would suffer from blast injuries, burns or radiation
sickness "and to begin to match our resources to the
types of injuries."
No matter how great the government's response, a
nuclear bomb's toll would be staggering.
The government's National Planning Scenario, which
isn't public, projects that a relatively small,
improvised 10-kiloton bomb could kill hundreds of
thousands of people in a medium-sized city and cause
hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses.
The document, last updated in April 2005, projects that
a bomb denoted at ground level in Washington, D. C.,
would kill as many as 204,600 people, including many
government officials, and would injure or sicken
90,800. Another 24,580 victims would die of
radiation-related cancer in ensuing years. Radioactive
debris would contaminate a 3,000-square-mile area,
requiring years-long cleanup, it said.
Brinkerhoff, author of the confidential memo for the
Joint Chiefs, estimated that nearly 300,000 National
Guardsmen, military reservists and civil emergency
personnel would be needed to rescue, decontaminate,
process and manage the 1.5 million evacuees.
The job would include cordoning off the blast zone and
manning a 200-mile perimeter around the fallout area to
process and decontaminate victims, to turn others away
from the danger and to maintain order. Brinkerhoff
estimated that the military would need to provide
140,000 of the 300,000 responders, but doubted that the
Pentagon would have that many. And the Public Health
Service's Knebel cited studies suggesting that the
"fear factor" would reduce civil emergency responders
by more than 30 percent.
Planning for an
attack seems to evoke a sense of resignation among some
"We are concerned about the catastrophic threats and
are trying to improve our abilities for disasters,"
said Gerald Parker, a deputy assistant secretary in
Health and Human Services' new Office of Preparedness
and Response. "But you have to look at what's pragmatic
Dr. Andrew Garrett of Columbia University's National
Center for Disaster Preparedness, put it this way:
"People are just very intimidated to take on the
problem" because "there may not be apparent solutions
The U. S. intelligence community considers it a "fairly
remote" possibility that terrorists will obtain
weapons-grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium,
which is more accessible, to build a nuclear weapon,
said a senior intelligence official who requested
anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the
information. The official said intelligence agencies
worry mainly about a makeshift, radioactive "dirty
bomb" that would kill at most a few hundred people,
contaminate part of a city and spread panic.
But concerns about a larger nuclear attack are
increasing at a time when North Korea is testing atomic
weapons and Iran is believed to be pursuing them.
Al-Qaida's worldwide network of terrorists also
reportedly has been reconstituted.
The 9/11 Commission's 2004 report rated a nuclear
bombing as the most consequential threat facing the
"We called for a maximum effort against the threat,"
Lee Hamilton, the panel's vice chairman, told McClatchy
Newspapers. "My impression is that we've got a long
ways to go. ... I just think it would overwhelm
Dr. Ira Helfand, a Massachusetts emergency care doctor
who co-authored a report on nuclear preparedness last
year by the Physicians for Social Responsibility,
chided the administration for trying "to create a
climate of fear rather than to identify a problem and
address it." The doctors' group found
the government "dangerously unprepared" for a nuclear
Government officials say they have drafted playbooks
for every sort of radioactive attack, from a "dirty
bomb" to a large, sophisticated device.
But radiation experts and government memos emphasize
the chaos that a bigger bomb could create. Emergency
responders could face power outages, leaking gas lines,
buckled bridges and tunnels, disrupted communications
from the blast's electromagnetic pulse and streets
clogged by vehicle crashes because motorists could be
blinded by the bright flash accompanying
exists to shield rescue teams from radiation,
and survivors would face similar risks if they tried to
walk to safety.
Defense analyst Brinkerhoff proposed having troops
gradually tighten the ring around the blast zone as the
radiation diminished, but warned that the government lacks the
hundreds of radiation meters needed to ensure
that they wouldn't endanger themselves. He said those
making rescue forays would need dosimeters to monitor
Emergency teams would have no quick test to determine
the extent of survivors' radiation exposure. They would
have to rely on tests for white blood cell declines or
quiz people about their whereabouts during the blast
and whether they had vomited.
For those with potentially lethal acute radiation
sickness, only limited medication is available, said
Richard Hatchett, who's overseeing nearly $100 million
in research on radiation countermeasures for the
National Institute of Allergies and Infectious
The Department of Health and Human Services might
commit to a limited purchase of one promising drug as
early as this month. But currently federal health
officials plan to fly victims of acute radiation
sickness to hospitals across the country for bone
The National Planning Scenario expressed concern that
uninformed survivors of an attack could be lethally
exposed to radiation because they failed to seek
shelter, preferably in a sealed basement, for three to
four days while radioactive debris decayed.
problem: Only a small percentage of Americans store
bottled water, canned food and other essentials for an
ordeal in a shelter.
Helfand said it would be too late to help most people
near the blast, but that advance education could save
many people in the path of the fallout.
critical, he said, because attempting to evacuate could
"put you on a crowded freeway where you'll be stuck in
traffic and get the maximum radiation
California's emergency services chief, Henry Renteria,
said it might be time "to re-establish an urban area
radiation shelter program."
Brinkerhoff wrote that people could build their own
radiation-proof shelters if the government engaged in
"large-scale civil defense planning" and gave them
meters and dosimeters to monitor the radiation.
Since there hasn't been "any enthusiasm to address this
kind of preparedness," Brinkerhoff concluded, the
only choice for most people would be to