Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Imagining the Unimaginable

Following yesterday's news that nations are making their nuclear weapons smaller, an interesting op-ed regarding the nuclear threat appeared in the New York Times today by former SecDef William Perry and Assistant SecDef Ashton Carter, along with Michael May, former head of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Their focus: What happens if terrorists succeed in striking the U.S. with a nuclear weapon? What then? Are we prepared?

It's safe to say that many citizens probably don't know or don't remember the lessons taught in Cold War classrooms. But what about local, state, and federal leaders? What about first responders?

Perry, Carter and May make the case for preparedness:

It turns out that much could be done to save lives and ensure that civilization endures in such terrible circumstances.

For those within a two-mile-wide circle around a Hiroshima-sized detonation ... little could be done. But most of a city’s residents, being farther away, would have more choices. What should they do as they watch a cloud of radioactive debris rise and float downwind like the dust from the twin towers on 9/11? Those lucky enough to be upwind could remain in their homes if they knew which way the fallout plume was blowing. (The federal government has the ability to determine that and to quickly broadcast the information.) But for those downwind and more than a few miles from ground zero, the best move would be to shelter in a basement for three days or so and only then leave the area.
Radioactive fallout rapidly loses its potency; after just 5 days it's just 20 percent as strong as on the first day, and after about two weeks, it's close to zero.

Do people know that the infamous duct tape is useful in such circumstances? (You want to keep out dust.) Who's going to tell them?

Will they rely on the Emergency Alert System? Despite recent upgrades, the EAS is of questionable reliability. It's never even been tested on a national level.

Other issues:
[C]hoices would face first responders and troops sent to the stricken area: how close to ground zero could they go, and for how long?

Finally, as buildings and lives were destroyed, so would the sense of safety and well-being of survivors, and this in turn could lead to panic. Contingency plans for the day after a nuclear blast should demonstrate to Americans that all three branches of government can work in unison and under the Constitution to respond to the crisis and prevent further destruction.
The authors also point out that, in the aftermath of a nuclear event, city residents will become refugees, and they may send their children to live in the country for some time. Rural planning is just as important as urban planning.

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