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Readiness for Terrorist Nuclear Threats

William K.Chipman

This paper outlines the elements of readiness which should be developed with dispatch, against the possibility of terrorist detonation of a nuclear weapon. Steps to develop such readiness, as an element of overall emergency preparedness, are at the end of the paper.

It is essential that police, fire, and other emergency forces have radiation-measuring instruments and training to allow them to approach a damaged area to assist probably thousands of injured survivors. Such operations—akin to those in New York on September 11 and after, but over a far larger area with far greater numbers of injured, and with fallout radiation and fire presenting hazards—would be conducted as outlined in a companion paper, "Nuclear Emergency Operations 101" (NEOP 101).

Fallout-hazard reports from the emergency services would also provide the basis for advising the people on what to do to protect themselves from fallout radiation. Under the NEO 101 concept, people up to 100 miles from the nuclear detonation should initially take shelter from fallout, although most would be in areas which later proved to be fallout-free. 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.

Situation: The September 11 attacks show it is not wise to underrate the ingenuity, determination, and malice of today’s terrorists. While it would not be easy for them to gain access to nuclear materials or weapons, neither would it be impossible. As recent as November 2, speakers at an International Atomic Energy Agency conference warned that shockingly poor security, in many countries, may result in theft of materials which could be used in fashioning a weapon. Should terrorists obtain a weapon, it is likely they would use it, in view of their demonstrated desire to cause massive civilian casualties.

Risk Areas: Large cities are clear candidates for terrorist nuclear attack, especially those with symbolic value, as seen on September 11. Other targets cannot be excluded (e.g., nuclear power plants, refineries, transportation chokepoints), but preparations should be started for the larger metropolitan areas, where so many people live, pending designation of additional areas.

Content of Emergency Public Information (EPI): An ability needs to be developed to broadcast advice to the people on what they should do to reduce their exposure to radiation, thus reducing deaths and radiation sickness. The design case would be a no-warning attack "from the blue," in which warning would result from the detonation itself.

It would be essential to have the ability to broadcast advice within a few minutes of the burst to people around the damaged area, to seek the best fallout protection available:

      "Go to the basement of the building you are in, if it has one. If not, go to the nearest large building….You may need to stay in shelter for a few hours, or for a few days. Take a battery-powered radio with you and stay tuned. We will let you know what you should do."

Such EPI materials should be prepositioned "in the can" (or "on the disc"), ready for immediate use in each risk area. Follow-on advice for those farther away would have to be developed locally, soon after the detonation, as it became possible to project where fallout could be expected and when, based on fallout reports from units of the emergency services. Advice for people in such areas would cover actions to improvise additional fallout protection rapidly in the home (even homes without basements), as well as information on the decrease of radiation levels with the passage of time. Later broadcasts should tell people when they could leave shelter in various parts of the fallout zone, and what they should do next (e.g., move out of the danger area to minimize exposure to reduced but still harmful levels of radiation).

As soon as areas not expected to receive fallout had been determined, this information should be made widely known—to the population at large as well as to police, fire, medical and other emergency forces. The people would be free to leave shelter, and emergency forces could undertake operations to assist those injured or threatened by fire in the damaged areas, working from fallout-free staging areas upwind.

A terrorist attack would likely involve a single nuclear detonation, or at most a few, so that emergency forces could be dispatched from elsewhere in the affected State and from neighboring States. Federal forces, both military and civil, would be dispatched as well.

Nevertheless, local forces would necessarily conduct all or most operations during the critical hours soon after a detonation.

Performance of EPI System: Providing emergency public information is far from a magic wand guaranteeing everyone protection from harm by radiation. Survival would be maximized if sound advice were broadcast and everyone in the threatened area understood the advice and acted upon it. There are however many reasons why actual performance would fall short of the ideal. For example, some radio and TV stations might be unable to broadcast due to blast or fire damage. Some people in basements might not have radio receivers. Nevertheless, it would be irresponsible not to develop systems with potential to reduce radiation sickness and deaths substantially—especially in areas some distance downwind of the burst, where fallout might not arrive for an hour or more, allowing more time for people to receive, comprehend and act upon EPI advice.

Capabilities Needed: The most basic capability needed is that fire, police and other emergency forces be able to measure fallout radiation levels, which in turn requires equipment, training and planning, as well as regular exercise of the plans. The ability to provide lifesaving EPI advice to the public requires a 24-hour control center (Emergency Operating Center) in each risk area, plus rapid access to local broadcast stations, as well as standby material for immediate use and a qualified professional able to develop follow-on advice for those down-wind.

It should go without saying that readiness for a terrorist nuclear threat must be made an integral part of existing plans and organization for emergencies of all types, also that maximum use be made of existing capabilities. For example, many States have one or more nuclear power plants, with radiological emergency (REP) plans and capabilities required as a condition for their operation. Also, many States have a Radiological Health (or Safety) officer, responsible for licensing and inspecting users of radioactive materials. Hospitals, universities, and companies which use radiation or radioactive materials also have instruments and trained personnel. Professionals from such organizations could be valuable in developing plans against the threat of terrorist nuclear attack, and some might realistically be given assignments to support local operations in an emergency.

It would be essential, however, that police and fire units have the training and radiological instruments needed to measure radiation levels from fallout, as well as accumulated radiation exposure to personnel, as a basis for conducting operations in areas of fallout hazard. Some emergency service units throughout the U.S. may still have civil defense instruments and some have recently been given a limited number of instruments through the FBI. However, unless many of the other instruments provided through the civil defense program can be recovered, it will be necessary to procure a substantial number of new instruments, and necessary as well either to reestablish the State instrument maintenance and calibration facilities supported by FEMA through about the mid-1990’s or to provide equivalent support by another means.

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. Pilot Areas: In consultation with State and local officials, select four or five test areas for initial deployment. The aim would be to develop early capabilities in these areas, while refining approaches and developing a planning handbook for use elsewhere. Issues to be addressed would include, e.g., the extent to which radiological organizations maintained for other purposes could reliably and realistically support local operations in a terrorist emergency; the need, if any, for a full-time Radiological Officer in each risk area; and arrangements which exist or are feasible to broadcast emergency advice to the public around the risk area (evaluate the use for this purpose of the Emergency Alert System, which replaced the Emergency Broadcast System some time ago).
  2. Radiological Instrumentation and Training: Assess the need for instruments for the emergency services in the pilot areas and elsewhere, and whether needs could realistically be met by any means other than Federal procurement of instruments and their provision to the States. Evaluate sources for instruments, also ways in which instruments could be maintained and calibrated. Begin procurement, as needed, of radiation rate meters and dosimeters for pilot areas. Assess training needs of the emergency services, including periodic exercises based on NEO 101 concepts. Provide training for pilot areas and develop and conduct exercises for the emergency services, key local officials, and the Emergency Alert System. (The exercises are to assure that plans and radiological instruments and training add up to a system able to respond to a no-warning, unprecedented catastrophe.)
  3. 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.

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 is now undeniable, and the casualties from a nuclear burst in a U.S. city could exceed those in New York by more than an order of magnitude (be over 10 times as great). While massive casualties can only be reduced, not eliminated, it would be imprudent to neglect steps with potential to reduce casualties substantially.