U.S. rethinks strategy for an unthinkable attack
Administration's problem: How to spread advice without causing alarm?
By WILLIAM J. BROAD
The New York Times
updated 12/15/2010 8:26:51 PM ET 2010-12-16T01:26:51
Suppose the unthinkable happened, and terrorists struck New York or another big city with an atom bomb. What should people there do? The government has a surprising new message: Do not flee. Get inside any stable building and don’t come out till officials say it’s safe.
The advice is based on recent scientific analyses indicating that a nuclear attack is much more survivable if you immediately shield yourself from the lethal radiation that follows a blast, a simple tactic seen as saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Even staying in a car, the studies show, would reduce casualties by more than 50 percent; hunkering down in a basement would be better by far.
But a problem for the Obama administration is how to spread the word without seeming alarmist about a subject that few politicians care to consider, let alone discuss. So officials are proceeding gingerly in a campaign to educate the public.
“We have to get past the mental block that says it’s too terrible to think about,” W. Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said in an interview. “We have to be ready to deal with it” and help people learn how to best protect themselves.
Over the years, Washington has sought to prevent nuclear terrorism and limit its harm, mainly by governmental means. It has spent tens of billions of dollars on everything from intelligence and securing loose nuclear materials to equipping local authorities with radiation detectors.
The new wave is citizen preparedness. For people who survive the initial blast, the main advice is to fight the impulse to run and instead seek shelter to save themselves and their families from lethal radioactivity.
Administration officials argue that the cold war created an unrealistic sense of fatalism about a terrorist nuclear attack. “It’s more survivable than most people think,” said an official deeply involved in the planning, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The key is avoiding nuclear fallout.”
The administration is making that argument with state and local authorities and has started to do so with the general public as well.
Its Citizen Corps Web site says a nuclear detonation is “potentially survivable for thousands, especially with adequate shelter and education.” A color illustration shows which kinds of buildings and which rooms offer the best protection from radiation.
In June, the administration released to emergency officials around the nation an unclassified planning guide 130 pages long on how to respond to a nuclear attack. It stressed citizen education, before any attack.
Without that knowledge, the guide added, “people will be more likely to follow the natural instinct to run from danger, potentially exposing themselves to fatal doses of radiation.”
The Obama administration is preparing a separate, more detailed communications guide for state and local authorities.
Specialists outside of Washington are divided on the initiative. One group says the administration is overreacting and exaggerating an atomic threat that is all but nonexistent.
Peter Bergen, a fellow at the New America Foundation and New York University’s Center on Law and Security, recently argued that the odds of any terrorist group obtaining a nuclear weapon are “near zero for the foreseeable future.”
Push for action
But another school says that the consequences, notwithstanding low risks, are so high that the administration is, if anything, being too timid.
“There’s no penetration of the message coming out of the federal government,” said Irwin Redlener, a doctor and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University. “What’s new over the past few years is the realization that small amounts of preparedness can save hundreds of thousands of lives. It’s deeply frustrating that we seem unable to bridge the gap between the new insights and using them to inform public policy.”
White House officials say they are aware of the issue’s political delicacy but are nonetheless moving ahead aggressively.
The administration has sought “to enhance national resilience — to withstand disruption, adapt to change and rapidly recover,” said Brian Kamoie, senior director for preparedness policy at the National Security Council. He added, “We’re working hard to involve individuals in the effort so they become part of the team in terms of emergency management.”
A nuclear blast produces a blinding flash, burning heat and crushing wind. The fireball and mushroom cloud carry radioactive particles upward, and the wind sends them near and far.
The federal government initially knew little about radioactive fallout. But in the 1950s, as the cold war intensified, scientists monitoring test explosions learned that the tiny particles throbbed with fission products — fragments of split atoms, many highly radioactive and potentially lethal.
But after a burst of interest in fallout shelters, the public and even the government grew increasingly skeptical about civil defense as nuclear arsenals grew to hold thousands of warheads.
In late 2001, a month after the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the director of central intelligence told President George W. Bush of a secret warning that Al Qaeda had hidden an atom bomb in New York City.
The report turned out to be false. But atomic jitters soared. The government embarked on dozens of defensive programs.
“History will judge harshly those who saw this coming danger but failed to act,” Mr. Bush said in late 2002.
His administration focused on prevention but also dealt with disaster response and the acquisition of items like radiation detectors.
“Public education is key,” Daniel J. Kaniewski, a security expert at George Washington University, said in an interview. “But it’s easier for communities to buy equipment — and look for tech solutions — because there’s Homeland Security money and no shortage of contractors to supply the silver bullet.”
After Hurricane Katrina in 2005 revealed the poor state of disaster planning, public and private officials began to question national preparedness for atomic strikes. Some noted conflicting federal advice on whether survivors should seek shelter or try to evacuate.
In 2007, Congress appropriated $5.5 million for studies on atomic disaster planning, noting that “cities have little guidance available to them.”
The Department of Homeland Security financed a multiagency modeling effort led by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The scientists looked at Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other big cities, using computers to simulate details of both the urban landscape and terrorist bombs.
The results were revealing. For instance, the scientists found that a bomb’s flash would blind many drivers, causing accidents and complicating evacuation.
The big surprise was how taking shelter for as little as several hours made a huge difference in survival rates.
“This has been a game changer,” Brooke Buddemeier, a Livermore health physicist, told a Los Angeles conference. He showed a slide labeled “How Many Lives Can Sheltering Save?”
If people in Los Angeles a mile or more from ground zero of an attack took no shelter, Mr. Buddemeier said, there would be 285,000 casualties from fallout in that region.
Taking shelter in a place with minimal protection, like a car, would cut that figure to 125,000 deaths or injuries, he said. A shallow basement would further reduce it to 45,000 casualties. And the core of a big office building or an underground parking garage would provide the best shelter of all.
“We’d have no significant exposures,” Mr. Buddemeier told the conference, and thus virtually no casualties from fallout.
Las Vegas bomb
On Jan. 16, 2009 — four days before Mr. Bush left office — the White House issued a 92-page handbook lauding “pre-event preparedness and dissemination of guidance to the public.” But it was silent on the delicate issue of how to inform the public.
Soon after Mr. Obama arrived at the White House, he embarked a global campaign to fight atomic terrorism and sped up domestic planning for disaster response. A senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the new administration began a revision of the Bush administration’s handbook to address the issue of public communication.
“We started working on it immediately,” the official said. “It was recognized as a key part of our response.”
The agenda hit a speed bump. Las Vegas was to star in the nation’s first live exercise meant to simulate a terrorist attack with an atom bomb, the test involving about 10,000 emergency responders.
But casinos and businesses protested, as did Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader. He told the federal authorities that it would scare away tourists at a time when unemployment was already unacceptably high.
Late last year, the administration backed down.
“Politics overtook preparedness,” said Mr. Kaniewski of George Washington University.
When the administration came out with its revised planning guide in June, it noted that “no significant federal response” after an attack would be likely for one to three days.
The document stressed the importance of educating the public beforehand but also noted the sense of fatalism from the cold war and antiterrorism campaigns, whose suggestions for making safe zones with plastic sheeting and duct tape had met with skepticism.
Still, it said, planners have an obligation to help the public “make effective decisions.” The guide said messages for predisaster campaigns might be tailored for schools, businesses, and even water bills.
“The most lives,” the handbook said, “will be saved in the first 60 minutes through sheltering in place.”
This article, U.S. Rethinks Strategy for the Unthinkable, first appeared in The New York Times.http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40689998/ns/us_news-the_new_york_times