Wednesday, August 25, 2010

US unprepared for Nuke Attack?

A report released earlier this year by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness argues that “the U.S. remains unprepared to cope with the possibility of an attack on a major city by terrorists capable of acquiring and detonating an improvised nuclear device” — and urges a public education effort to inform Americans on what they should do in the event of a nuclear detonation to best mitigate its effects.

The study, “Regional Health and Public Health Preparedness for Nuclear Terrorism: Optimizing Survival in a Low Probability/High Consequence Disaster,” is authored by Irwin Redlener, Andrew L. Garrett, Karen L. Levin and Andrew Mener. It was released while this blog was on hiatus so I am posting it now.

The authors contend that our lack of preparedness is in part a result of a lack of understanding that there are things that actually can be done in response:

Although the detonation of a low-yield IND in an American city is one of the 15 planning scenarios developed by the White House Homeland Security Council for use in security preparedness activities, local and regional emergency planning activities have not given attention commensurate to this threat. Barriers to planning for such a catastrophic event are not well understood but may be related to fatalistic beliefs or concepts of improbability, with many believing that other disasters are more probable and merit the focus of emergency planners.

But protective actions will be most useful if they are known in advance:

Following a nuclear detonation, a response based on threat-specific strategies will be essential to maximize time-sensitive life-saving opportunities. Public protective actions to reduce exposure and injury, critical within the first hours, will depend greatly upon a well thought out, pre-event messaging strategy and the ability to communicate easily-understood information to the public. The risk for injury and nuclear detonation effects does not end after the initial blast; the public must understand the correct protective actions and when to take them throughout the response and recovery phases.

The report explains that “in the minutes and hours after the detonation of an IND, the public would need to make a few key decisions in order to maximize their chances of surviving and minimize their injuries and long-term health effects”:

1. Is it better to evacuate now or later?

2. If I stay put, how should I shelter and decontaminate myself to prevent further injury?

3. When I do evacuate, where should I go to avoid placing myself at an increased risk from fallout?

…Individuals will very likely need to make these decisions in the absence of official directions. If local health officials are to dramatically increase the percentage of affected people who can survive, they must make the public aware of the benefits of these initial life-saving responses actions and of knowing what to do in an emergency.

Despite the benefits that these simple protective measures can have, it seems that the widely-known images of the nuclear devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and subsequent fictionalized portrayals of nuclear conflict in movies and television-program images of total nuclear devastation have led people to conclude either that preparedness is impossible or that the federal government already must have done everything in its power to protect the country. Both assumptions are inaccurate.

The study recommends what the U.S. should do to address this lack of readiness:

In the United States, virtually no public education has taken place about what an individual should do in the event of a nuclear detonation, although there is urgent and critical need for such education, especially for those living in potential target areas. Also lacking are pre-developed, exercised and well-tested communication plans to deliver rapid information from officials to the public following a nuclear incident…

…A public education campaign that addressed these issues could save lives and reduce injury in the gray zone by empowering the public to initiate life-saving actions without the need for official advice, which may never arrive. Immediate protective actions in the first moments after a detonation are critical. Considering that it might be impossible to get emergency messages to the public after a detonation, it is sensible to equip the public now with basic information on how to best protect themselves and their family should they ever confront this type of disaster.