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Want an effective nuclear preparedness plan? Get rid of nuclear weapons

January 31, 2013

Last week, I made fun of an advisory that appeared in the Greater Kashmir newspaper, describing steps people could take to protect themselves during a nuclear attack. I noted the similarities with the fallout shelter schemes and “duck and cover” drills promoted in the US in the 1950s. With the Oslo conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons only a few weeks away, with an entire panel given over to a critical examination of preparedness and response, I got to wondering what, if anything, the US had done to update its own nuclear civil defense plans in recent times.

What I found was a 40-page interagency document called “Nuclear Detonation Preparedness: Communicating in the Immediate Aftermath,” which was approved for “interim use” in September 2010. The document draws upon the combined resources of 13 federal agencies and the American Red Cross to provide a set of messages that can be delivered by local, state, and national authorities in the event of a nuclear explosion. The premise is that this explosion will be an act of nuclear terrorism (sidestepping the fact that the US has thousands of nuclear weapons and a declared willingness to use them). While the document is not presented as an operational nuclear disaster response plan, what it says (and, more important, what it does not say) reveals a lot about the futility of any such plan.

Although I’m a hearty proponent of ridicule when dealing with the ridiculous, and certainly used it in my previous piece, I can’t quite bring myself to treat this document sarcastically. There are two reasons.

First, when you strip away all the boilerplate rhetoric and redundancy, the document is really about only one aspect of response: providing information and guidance about radiation to outlying populations, and suggesting how to minimize exposure if they were not among those killed or seriously injured by the blast and thermal effects of the explosion. While Chernobyl and Fukushima exposed the limitations of managing even this narrow a response on a large scale, there are measures that would help some people protect themselves from exposure to large amounts of radiation, and one can’t fault disaster response agencies for taking this on as a responsibility.

Second, the language in this document is simultaneously earnest, wishful, and evasive. Behind all the bureaucratic jargon and public relations spin, I hear the voices of people who are trained to help, who want to believe they could help even when helpless, and who can’t bring themselves to say what they know to be true (or, more likely, were prevented from saying it).

That doesn’t mean I have anything positive to say about the handful of messages that are recycled through a question and answer format (often, the same blocks of formulaic text are copied and pasted from page to page):

  • “Find the nearest building, preferably built of brick or concrete, and go inside.”
  • “Radiation levels are extremely dangerous after a nuclear detonation but the levels reduce rapidly, in just hours to a few days.”
  • “When evacuating is in your best interest, you will be instructed to do so.”
  • “Please follow instructions.”
  • “Stay tuned because instructions may change.”
  • “Wash your hands with soap and water before handling any food.“
  • “We are doing everything possible to identify those responsible for this malicious, tragic event.”
  • “We, as a city and a nation, will recover from this tragedy. This process will not occur overnight. We need everyone to work together to support those in need and rebuild what we have lost.”

Stay calm. Stay inside. Wash your clothes and your food. Follow instructions. Let us do our jobs as best we can. Take care of those around you. There’s some “stiff upper lip” rhetoric and several pages of generalities about radiation (including misleading diversions about “background radiation”) and its health effects, and not much else.

There is not one meaningful word about what has happened to—or what can be done for—those in the areas of greatest devastation. The prepared response to the questions “how many people have died?” and “how many have been injured?” is “we don’t want to speculate on the specific number.” The answer to the question “what is being done in response?” is “responders are working to save lives as close to the impacted area as possible.”

But then comes a crucial acknowledgement: that “as close as possible” is not nearly close enough (remember Fukushima). “This nuclear detonation has created some areas where the destruction is so devastating and levels of radiation are too high for responders go into at this time (sic).” In anticipation of the question “when will things return to normal?,” comes the closest thing to a moment of real honesty that you’ll find in these 40 pages:

“…[N]ormal after the attack may not look like normal before the attack,” and, further on, “it may be years before the most contaminated areas are reoccupied.”

(The closest thing to a moment of real dishonesty? Q: “Will shelters be available for people instructed to evacuate?” A: “Yes, designated shelters will be available.”)

This, gentle reader, is a tacit admission that no meaningful disaster response to a nuclear detonation can be organized, other than providing updates about fallout and decontamination advice to those at some distance from the physical effects of the explosion.

Unfortunately, reality provides all the evidence needed to come to the opposite conclusion. The most responsible thing the authors of this document could say is that everything they know how to do in the face of a hurricane, or an earthquake, or an industrial disaster, would be useless in the event of another Hiroshima or Nagasaki. An interagency report with that kind of message might lead to a different question from a concerned public: “When, exactly, do you plan to get rid of the weapons that could do this to us? Or to anyone?”

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