Latest News

U.S. unprepared for nuclear terror attack, experts say

WASHINGTON—Although the Bush administration has warned repeatedly about the threat of a terrorist nuclear attack and spent more than $300 billion to protect the homeland, the government remains ill-prepared to respond to a nuclear catastrophe.

Experts and government documents suggest that, absent a major preparedness push, the U.S. response to a mushroom cloud could be worse than the debacle after Hurricane Katrina, possibly contributing to civil disorder and costing thousands of lives.

"The United States is unprepared to mitigate the consequences of a nuclear attack," Pentagon analyst John Brinkerhoff concluded in a July 31, 2005, draft of a confidential memo to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We were unable to find any group or office with a coherent approach to this very important aspect of homeland security. ...

"This is a bad situation. The threat of a nuclear attack is real, and action is needed now to learn how to deal with one."

Col. Jill Morgenthaler, Illinois' director of homeland security, said there's a "disconnect" between President Bush's and Vice President Dick Cheney's nuclear threat talk and the administration's actions.

"I don't see money being focused on actual response and mitigation to a nuclear threat," she said.

Interviews by McClatchy Newspapers with more than 15 radiation and emergency preparedness experts and a review of internal documents revealed:

_The government has yet to launch an educational program, akin to the Cold War-era civil defense campaign promoting fallout shelters, to teach Americans how to shield themselves from radiation, especially from the fallout plume, which could deposit deadly particles up to 100 miles from ground zero.

_Analysts estimate that as many as 300,000 emergency workers would be needed after a nuclear attack, but predict that the radiation would scare many of them away from the disaster site.

_Hospital emergency rooms wouldn't be able to handle the surge of people who were irradiated or the many more who feared they were.

_Medical teams would have to improvise to treat what could be tens of thousands of burn victims because most cities have only one or two available burn-unit beds. Cham Dallas, director of the University of Georgia's Center for Mass Destruction Defense, called the predicament "the worst link in our health care wall."

_Several drugs are in development and one is especially promising, but the government hasn't acquired any significant new medicine to counteract radiation's devastating effects on victims' blood-forming bone marrow.

Over the last three years, several federal agencies have taken some steps in nuclear disaster planning. The Department of Health and Human Services has drawn up "playbooks" for a range of attack scenarios and created a Web site to instruct emergency responders in treating radiation victims.

The Energy Department's Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is geared to use real-time weather data, within minutes of a bombing, to create a computer model that charts the likely path of a radioactive fallout plume so that the government can warn affected people to take shelter or evacuate. The government also has modeled likely effects in blast zones.

Capt. Ann Knebel, the U.S. Public Health Service's deputy preparedness chief, said her agency is using the models to understand how many people in different zones would suffer from blast injuries, burns or radiation sickness "and to begin to match our resources to the types of injuries."

No matter how great the government's response, a nuclear bomb's toll would be staggering.

The government's National Planning Scenario, which isn't public, projects that a relatively small, improvised 10-kiloton bomb could kill hundreds of thousands of people in a medium-sized city and cause hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses.

The document, last updated in April 2005, projects that a bomb denoted at ground level in Washington, D.C., would kill as many as 204,600 people, including many government officials, and would injure or sicken 90,800. Another 24,580 victims would die of radiation-related cancer in ensuing years. Radioactive debris would contaminate a 3,000-square-mile area, requiring years-long cleanup, it said.

Brinkerhoff, author of the confidential memo for the Joint Chiefs, estimated that nearly 300,000 National Guardsmen, military reservists and civil emergency personnel would be needed to rescue, decontaminate, process and manage the 1.5 million evacuees.

The job would include cordoning off the blast zone and manning a 200-mile perimeter around the fallout area to process and decontaminate victims, to turn others away from the danger and to maintain order. Brinkerhoff estimated that the military would need to provide 140,000 of the 300,000 responders, but doubted that the Pentagon would have that many. And the Public Health Service's Knebel cited studies suggesting that the "fear factor" would reduce civil emergency responders by more than 30 percent.

Planning for an attack seems to evoke a sense of resignation among some officials.

"We are concerned about the catastrophic threats and are trying to improve our abilities for disasters," said Gerald Parker, a deputy assistant secretary in Health and Human Services' new Office of Preparedness and Response. "But you have to look at what's pragmatic as well."

Dr. Andrew Garrett of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness, put it this way: "People are just very intimidated to take on the problem" because "there may not be apparent solutions right now."

The U.S. intelligence community considers it a "fairly remote" possibility that terrorists will obtain weapons-grade plutonium or highly enriched uranium, which is more accessible, to build a nuclear weapon, said a senior intelligence official who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the information. The official said intelligence agencies worry mainly about a makeshift, radioactive "dirty bomb" that would kill at most a few hundred people, contaminate part of a city and spread panic.

But concerns about a larger nuclear attack are increasing at a time when North Korea is testing atomic weapons and Iran is believed to be pursuing them. Al-Qaida's worldwide network of terrorists also reportedly has been reconstituted.

The 9/11 Commission's 2004 report rated a nuclear bombing as the most consequential threat facing the nation.

"We called for a maximum effort against the threat," Lee Hamilton, the panel's vice chairman, told McClatchy Newspapers. "My impression is that we've got a long ways to go. ... I just think it would overwhelm us."

Dr. Ira Helfand, a Massachusetts emergency care doctor who co-authored a report on nuclear preparedness last year by the Physicians for Social Responsibility, chided the administration for trying "to create a climate of fear rather than to identify a problem and address it." The doctors' group found the government "dangerously unprepared" for a nuclear attack.

Government officials say they have drafted playbooks for every sort of radioactive attack, from a "dirty bomb" to a large, sophisticated device.

But radiation experts and government memos emphasize the chaos that a bigger bomb could create. Emergency responders could face power outages, leaking gas lines, buckled bridges and tunnels, disrupted communications from the blast's electromagnetic pulse and streets clogged by vehicle crashes because motorists could be blinded by the bright flash accompanying detonation.

No equipment exists to shield rescue teams from radiation, and survivors would face similar risks if they tried to walk to safety.

Defense analyst Brinkerhoff proposed having troops gradually tighten the ring around the blast zone as the radiation diminished, but warned that the government lacks the hundreds of radiation meters needed to ensure that they wouldn't endanger themselves. He said those making rescue forays would need dosimeters to monitor their exposure.

Emergency teams would have no quick test to determine the extent of survivors' radiation exposure. They would have to rely on tests for white blood cell declines or quiz people about their whereabouts during the blast and whether they had vomited.

For those with potentially lethal acute radiation sickness, only limited medication is available, said Richard Hatchett, who's overseeing nearly $100 million in research on radiation countermeasures for the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases.

The Department of Health and Human Services might commit to a limited purchase of one promising drug as early as this month. But currently federal health officials plan to fly victims of acute radiation sickness to hospitals across the country for bone marrow transplants.

The National Planning Scenario expressed concern that uninformed survivors of an attack could be lethally exposed to radiation because they failed to seek shelter, preferably in a sealed basement, for three to four days while radioactive debris decayed. Another big problem: Only a small percentage of Americans store bottled water, canned food and other essentials for an ordeal in a shelter.

Helfand said it would be too late to help most people near the blast, but that advance education could save many people in the path of the fallout.

Education is critical, he said, because attempting to evacuate could "put you on a crowded freeway where you'll be stuck in traffic and get the maximum radiation exposure."

California's emergency services chief, Henry Renteria, said it might be time "to re-establish an urban area radiation shelter program."

Brinkerhoff wrote that people could build their own radiation-proof shelters if the government engaged in "large-scale civil defense planning" and gave them meters and dosimeters to monitor the radiation.

Since there hasn't been "any enthusiasm to address this kind of preparedness," Brinkerhoff concluded, the only choice for most people would be to flee.


(A video of simulated nuclear attack on Washington will be available for Web use. The link is


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


Need to map

Related stories from McClatchy DC