Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Day After: Responding to a Nuclear Attack

Most of us have either seen or read Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears, in which a group of middle-Eastern terrorists construct a nuclear weapon (using material salvaged from an Israeli device), smuggle it into the United States, and detonate it during the Super Bowl. [Not that the book and movie are the same, by any means: in the book, Jack Ryan is in his late 30’s or early 40’s; in the movie, Ryan is still a college student, required because someone thought it critical to cast Ben Affleck in the role.]

Older readers may remember the made-for-TV movie The Day After. The 1983 production described the aftermath of a nuclear strike on Lawrence, Kansas, which was notable for being completely commercial-free after the detonations.

Of course, these weren’t the only movies made about nuclear holocausts – On The Beach, By Dawn’s Early Light, Fail Safe, and Doctor Strangelove, among others, kept Americans constantly aware of the horrors of nuclear war (not to mention still-vivid images of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

Novelists got into the act as well: in addition to Clancy, Robin Moore (who wrote The Green Berets and The French Connection) penned a story about some home-grown terrorists detonating a nuke during the State of the Union Address, in his book The Trinity Implosion. A number of senior NATO officers collaborated on two volumes, The Third World War, and The Third World War: The Untold Story while noted writers Whitley Streiber and James Kunetka created Warday.

While this may be a fascinating history lesson, I can hear you asking, “What does this have to do with the real world?”

A few days ago, I ran across an interesting article in The Washington Quarterly, entitled “The Day After: Action Following a Nuclear Blast in a U.S. City.” Unlike the works mentioned above, this piece is non-fiction. William J. Perry and Ashton B. Carter (Clinton’s Secretary and Assistant Secretary of Defense, respectively) and Michael M. May (former director of Lawrence Livermore National Lab) approach the topic from a disaster-preparedness point of view: “What will the United States actually do on the day after prevention fails?” [Remember, to crisis-management types, a disaster is always a “when” proposition, not “if”].

In a similar vein to the Chatham House report we looked at back in March, Carter, May and Perry examine the decisions and actions required after a nuclear attack. Pointing out that such an attack would be “the most catastrophic single event in the nation’s history and the worst possible failure of public policy,” the authors set a likely scenario – the detonation of a 10KT device in a major city – discuss the “grisly effects,” and posit some possible reactions.

In doing so, however, they emphasize a major flaw in our nation’s preparedness posture: the fiction that state and local governments will be able to manage such a crisis by themselves. In fact, after a nuclear detonation, state and local government – if they survive at all – would be almost immediately overwhelmed, requiring prompt Federal intervention, without awaiting the formality of a request from the governor(s) of the affected state(s).

The Department of Homeland Security has mandated that all state and local governmental units prepare “all-hazards disaster mitigation plans” complying with the National Response Plan and the National Incident Management System; there is not, however, a functional equivalent plan (yet) on the national level.

One might think, given the distinct possibility of a nuclear attack on a U.S. city, that the federal government would have already developed a realistic response plan specific to this scenario that marshals the resources of all the agencies. Remarkably, such a plan does not yet exist, although one is being drafted.

Of course, given the marginal grades earned by DHS in various GAO audits, any plan developed is liable to be fraught with errors, omissions, and ambiguities (see, for instance, my November 30, 2006, post here). And given the current administration’s efforts to completely politicize all aspects of the Federal government, one probably should not anticipate any great improvement.

One aspect of any eventual response that is not discussed, however, is the need for hundreds or thousands of trained responders. Many of these responders, of course, come from the National Guard and Reserve units – most of which are stretched to the breaking point, courtesy of the Iraq folly undertaken by the Cheney/bush administration.

Carter, May and Perry point out that “the prob­ability of nuclear terrorism, although it cannot be quantified, is not zero and is surely increasing as the number of sources of fissile material multiplies.” While a terrorist group could conceivably obtain either a full device or fissile material from a middle-Eastern government, it is unlikely that such a group would store the device on a battlefield. More plausibly, as the authors note, a group like al-Qaeda could purchase a device (or material) from a rogue nation like North Korea. Either way, a terrorist group’s first priority would be to get the weapon into the United States.

It is imperative, therefore, that we bring our troops home as rapidly as possible and make them available for response here in the U.S. They must be trained and equipped for the tasks expected of them – something about which the Department of Defense has been singularly lax; we can and simply must have “the military you would like to have.”

The Department of Homeland Security must be completely revamped, with proven professionals, not political cronies, in positions of authority. Funding must be provided, without being diverted to no-bid (and often, no-show) contracts for chosen corporations.

And last, but not least, we, as Americans, must begin accepting the need to prepare ourselves: we must obtain the training and supplies needed to survive on our own pending a government response, we must develop and practice emergency plans at home and at work, and most importantly, we must hold our elected officials responsible for serving us, not special interests.

[Cross-posted to Out of Iraq and Watching Those We Chose]


  1. How about we as a community get together, put a bunch of money into a kitty, and put together a collective set of trained disaster responders and resources in order to keep ourselves alive in the aftermath of a disaster? That way we don't all individually need to stockpile food and water and medical supplies and so forth, we would already have our community stockpiles maintained and available for use and rotated in a timely manner so that they're never stale, all for much less than we'd individually pay to do so because it's cheaper to buy in bulk. The only problem is what do we call this hypothetical organization that we get together and form in order to help us prepare for emergencies and disasters. I could propose the name "government", but that name is apparently already taken by some sort of alien imposition upon the populace that lives only to steal all our money at gunpoint and provide no services in return.

    - Badtux the Snarky Penguin

  2. My favorite part of Tom Clancy's book was when they nuked the Stupid Bowl. I hate football.

  3. It all depends just how much of a cowboy we have in the White House. If we had a George W. type, the likely response would be the complete annilation of Iran. Any other President, left of W, might think we could "talk our way out of it." At some point, even Liberal Americans might favor nuclear strikes- to keep from losing any other major cities.