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2 Dec 02

Insights for Homeland Security from the U.S. Civil Defense Program

In an era when terrorists may obtain weapons of mass destruction, improving security for our people must be a multi-faceted endeavor. Bioterrorism is being addressed actively, and the chemical threat is receiving some attention. But there has been little stress on measures to reduce casualties from nuclear detonations, though these would far exceed casualties from a chemical attack. It is here that insights from the civil defense (CD) program may be helpful.

Potential Terrorist Nuclear Threat Should terrorists mount a nuclear attack on the U.S. in the next several years, it seems likely that this would involve one weapon or at most a few. The explosive yield could be similar to that of the Hiroshima weapon (smaller weapons are more difficult to construct), and the attack would likely be a surprise, with no specific advance warning. The detonation would likely be a surface burst, inflicting deaths and injuries in the scores of thousands and damaging thousands of structures, as well as causing great shock and fear both in the area attacked and across the country. (Possible terrorist detonation of a "dirty" high explosive bomb, to spread radiological contamination over a limited area, is addressed at the end of this paper.)

Insights for Homeland Security from the CD Program What useful guidance for homeland security emerges from examining the CD program? First, it is evident that a terrorist attack, while horrifying, would not compare with a large-scale nuclear attack, involving many or most cities and States, where casualties could number in the scores of millions. It follows that readiness to deal with one or even several terrorist nuclear detonations will not require re-instituting a nationwide shelter program, or evacuation planning throughout the country.

Many helpful approaches, however, may be identified in the CD program. Some are now taken for granted, such as basing emergency plans on the capabilities of local emergency forces, with operations controlled by civil government executives in protected "emergency operating centers" (EOC’s). These approaches were developed in CD planning in the 1950’s and have been proved effective in countless peacetime disasters since. Other CD approaches and capabilities, however, need to be adapted to the early 21st century terrorist threat, and some rebuilt.

Maximizing survival after a no-warning terrorist nuclear detonation requires, in principle, two things—that fire, police and other emergency forces from surrounding areas be able to come to the aid of injured survivors in the fire- and blast-damage zones, while minimizing their own exposure to fallout radiation, also that a spokesperson be able to broadcast advice to the population of the affected metropolitan area (and beyond), on what to do to minimize exposure to radiation. This in turn requires the ability to measure the intensity of fallout radiation in and around the affected area, and to translate this into action advice for both emergency forces and the public.

Radiological Monitoring and Analysis By the mid-1950’s it was recognized that it would be essential to develop capabilities, not normally found in local governments, to monitor and assess the hazard of fallout radiation, which could cause sickness or death among local forces and populations alike. A Federal program was therefore developed to produce and to maintain radiological detection instruments, and training on use of the instruments was provided in all States for both emergency forces and citizen volunteers. By the 1960’s instruments could be found in most fire and police vehicles, and thousands of additional sets of instruments were provided to the States for use by radiological monitors, with more thousands of sets being placed in public fallout shelters.

These radiological capabilities declined through the 1980’s and substantially disappeared after the CD Act was repealed in the mid-90’s. Many of the instruments were disposed of by the States, though many others are believed still to be in existence.

Because a terrorist nuclear detonation would likely occur with no warning, it is essential that radiation-measuring instruments again be placed in fire and police vehicles, and that emergency personnel be trained on how to use them. While outside assistance would flood into the stricken area—including for example Department of Energy and military teams able to assess radiation hazards from the air and on the ground—these could probably not be on the scene for 12 or more hours. That, however, is the period of greatest radiation intensity, when ignorance of the hazard would have the greatest impact in terms of radiation deaths and sickness which could have been prevented, among both emergency forces and the population, had proper protective actions been taken. There is no substitute for ready-to-operate radiological capabilities in each area deemed at risk of terrorist nuclear attack.

Emergency Public Information (EPI) Radiation-hazard reports from the emergency services would also provide the basis for advising the people on what to do to protect themselves. People should initially be advised to seek best-available shelter, e.g., in a home basement if available. As reports from emergency units began to develop a picture of the direction in which fallout was moving, Emergency Public Information (EPI) broadcasts would be essential to advise the people on what to do in downwind areas where fallout was likely to arrive in perhaps one to several hours. Also important would be the ability to advise people in other areas that no fallout was expected and that they could safely leave shelter.

Emergency information on fallout protection has potential to prevent deaths and to reduce radiation sickness among thousands of survivors. Almost as important would be that citizens—at least those able to receive radio or television broadcasts—would be hearing practical, what-to-do information from their governments. A floundering or incoherent response, or no response at all, could be seen by many as tantamount to abandonment. Radiation is an invisible hazard about which nearly everyone is profoundly ignorant, with corresponding potential for great fear—particularly in the absence of advice on what can be done for protection.

The response time required for Emergency Public Information operations would be similar to that for radiological monitoring by local emergency forces, several minutes rather than a number of hours. This requires that each metropolitan area at risk of terrorist nuclear attack have a control center (EOC) with a professional ready on a 24-hour basis to provide emergency information and advice to the public, together with the plans and arrangements needed for rapid access to local broadcast stations.

Actions Recommended to Develop Readiness The actions below should be started with dispatch, to begin building readiness against possible terrorist nuclear attack (using reprogrammed funds or other means to accelerate normally deliberate processes):

  1. Establish an Office of Nuclear Protection: Such an organization is essential to provide focus and thrust in developing readiness for nuclear terrorism. It need not be large, but it must include technical staff knowledgeable of radiation and other nuclear attack effects and of radiation instrumentation. No such individuals remain in FEMA nor are there believed to be any in other agencies to be moved into the new Department of Homeland Security; some qualified persons may be found, however, in the Departments of Defense and of Energy.
  2. Select Pilot Areas: In consultation with State and local officials, select about ten areas for initial (pilot) deployment, aiming at developing early capabilities to counter nuclear terrorism in these areas while refining approaches and developing a planning handbook for use elsewhere. Washington and New York are obvious pilot areas, with work reportedly well underway in Washington on a metro area emergency plan for terrorism, although this apparently does not address a terrorist nuclear detonation. Provide a full-time Radiological Officer in each risk area, to take the lead in emergency planning and training throughout the risk area, which in most cases would include a number of jurisdictions each having fire and police departments. The RO could be either a Federally-funded State employee or, pending hire and training of a State RO, a Federal employee. Issues to be addressed would include, e.g., sources for additional RO’s in each risk area, to provide 24-hour coverage; and arrangements which exist or are feasible to broadcast emergency advice to the public in areas surrounding the risk area (evaluate the use for this purpose of the Emergency Alert System, which replaced the Emergency Broadcast System some time ago).
  3. Radiological Instrumentation and Training: Assess the need for instruments for the emergency services in the pilot areas and elsewhere, with a provisional goal of one set of instruments per fire or police vehicle. Determine the extent to which needs could realistically be met by means other than Federal procurement of instruments and their provision to the States. (One near-term option is to seek out high-range instruments earlier granted to the States under the CD program, and re-issue them.) Consideration is reportedly being given to establishing Federal specifications for instruments, with these to be purchased by local governments using Federal funds, an approach which may lead to considerable delay in addition to higher costs. If this approach is adopted, prudence suggests issuing recovered CD instruments to risk areas, to provide an interim capability until new instruments became available. Begin procurement of radiation rate meters and dosimeters for pilot areas if and as required by the foregoing needs assessment. Evaluate steps to reestablish a system to maintain and calibrate instruments.
  4. Radiological Training and Exercises: Assess training needs of the emergency services, including periodic exercises. Develop and provide training for pilot areas as well as exercises for their emergency services, key local officials, and the Emergency Alert System. These exercises must assure that plans, radiological instruments and training add up to a system able to respond effectively in a no-warning, unprecedented catastrophe.
  5. Republish Information Materials: Revise the following materials to emphasize terrorist threats: (a) FEMA publication H-21, Nuclear Attack Environment Handbook, August 1990, to provide a handbook essential to training at EMI and in the States; (b) FEMA H-20, Protection in the Nuclear Age, 1985, a 38-page booklet for the citizen on weapons effects and means of protection; and (c) standby emergency public information (EPI) videos of c. 1989 on weapons effects and means of protection, and parallel radio EPI materials, as well as standby materials for newspaper publication.

"Dirty" Bombs: A threat not addressed above is that of the "dirty" nuclear device, a high-explosive bomb designed to disperse radioactive material such as cesium or cobalt. The resulting hazard, however, would be far less intense than that from the fallout produced by a nuclear detonation, with experts predicting few if any cases of radiation sickness, and the area affected would be quite small. Nonetheless, the population would be terrified, likely in many cities beyond the one attacked, and economic impacts could be great. It seems essential to be ready to identify a "dirty" bomb incident and to advise people on what to do—in almost all cases, to go about their business.

As with readiness to respond to a nuclear detonation, instruments should be in the hands of the emergency services, and must be capable of detecting the low-level radiation dispersed by a "dirty" bomb. Such "low-range" instruments are widespread today, to deal with potential hazards from peacetime uses of radioactive material, such as nuclear power generation or health applications. (These should be distinguished from "high-range" instruments, which are needed to measure the much more intense radiation produced by a nuclear detonation but are not widely available.) Emergency Public Information arrangements to advise the people on actions required in case of a nuclear detonation could and obviously should be used following a "dirty" bomb incident.

Conclusion: It is essential to develop readiness to reduce casualties, should terrorists detonate a nuclear weapon in the U.S. Their interest in killing our citizens has been undeniable since 911, and the casualties from a nuclear burst in a U.S. city could exceed those in New York by 10 if not 20 or more times. While massive casualties can only be reduced, not eliminated, it would be imprudent to neglect steps with potential to reduce casualties substantially.