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Prepare to be overwhelmed

March 5, 2013

Day two in Oslo is about preparedness and response, specifically, could the international community plan a coordinated response to mitigate the damage and suffering caused by the use of nuclear weapons.

Some of the technical presentations about preparedness and relief capacities danced around the unavoidable reality: that the consequences would be of such a magnitude that first responders, doctors, and relief workers would inevitably be overwhelmed and unable to assist in any meaningful way.

Experts from the Nuclear Regulatory Authority in Romania and from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs acknowledged that the aftermath of a nuclear detonation would present unprecedented challenges, but they held the view that the systems already created for responding to radiological emergencies and natural and technological disasters could be used as the basis for logistical planning in the event of the use of nuclear weapons, at least in a marginal way.

In fairness, those charged with the task of assisting disaster victims are predisposed to believe they can help under any circumstances, and they should be applauded for those instincts. The consequences of more limited disasters, up to an including Fukushima-type events, pose enormous challenges, yet those challenges can be addressed to some extent. But as  Gregor Malich, the head of the NRBC Operational Response Project of the ICRC, reaffirmed, the capacity to respond in the event a nuclear weapon detonation is not available at a national level and is not possible at an international level. This was explained in concrete detail during an intervention by a member of the Swiss delegation, who summarized the findings of a national study that looked closely at the capacity of fire brigades, shelter systems, burn units, and other medical infrastucture. “We are under no illusions,” he said. “We would be overwhelmed.” (Other countries would do well to commission similar national studies at the same level of detail.)

The interventions from the floor consistently supported this point of view. Turkey, for example, asserted that prevention is more important than preparedness, because all of the material presented at this conference demonstrated that preparedness is unrealistic. The Mexican delegate got right to the point: if prevention is necessary, then the only way to ensure prevention is to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons.

Whether the State participants in this conference are prepared to move in that direction is something we expect will be discussed after lunch.

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