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U.S. Revises Nuclear Blast Aftermath Guidance

(Dec. 16) -A 1970 French nuclear test at Mururoa, French Polynesia. The United States has adopted  guidelines calling for individuals in the vicinity of a terrorist nuclear strike to shelter in place during the blast's immediate aftermath (Getty Images). (Dec. 16) -A 1970 French nuclear test at Mururoa, French Polynesia. The United States has adopted guidelines calling for individuals in the vicinity of a terrorist nuclear strike to shelter in place during the blast's immediate aftermath (Getty Images).

The United States has updated its guidance for the immediate aftermath of a potential nuclear strike, urging people in the vicinity of a blast to remain inside sturdy structures until they receive the green light to leave from authorities, the New York Times reported yesterday (see GSN, Sept. 9).

The recommendation -- rooted in new studies pointing to the danger radioactive fallout would pose just after the blast -- is thought capable of preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths. The protection from radiation offered by cars alone could cut casualties by half, according to the expert assessments.

Washington has spent tens of billions of dollars in past years on programs aimed at preventing and preparing for nuclear attack, underwriting nuclear material security initiatives, radiation detection equipment and collection of intelligence, according to the Times.

Now, officials described a push to carry out exercises and prepare crisis planning officials to inform the general populace on how to best respond to a nuclear strike. A 130-page planning document distributed in June notes the importance of informing the public of proper response procedures ahead of an incident.

“We have to get past the mental block that says it’s too terrible to think about,” FEMA head Craig Fugate said. “We have to be ready to deal with it” and show how individuals could “best protect themselves.”

The nation's decades-long nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union promoted assumptions that an atomic attack would be impossible to live through, Obama administration sources said.

“It’s more survivable than most people think,” an official working on the revised guidance said of a potential nuclear strike by extremists. “The key is avoiding nuclear fallout.”

An atomic blast is “potentially survivable for thousands, especially with adequate shelter and education,” states the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Citizen Corps website, which depicts which parts of a building would best serve as shelter from a nuclear strike.

Critics, though, have accused the administration of doing too little to spread its message to the public.

“There’s no penetration of the message coming out of the federal government,” said Irwin Redlener, head of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “It’s deeply frustrating that we seem unable to bridge the gap between the new insights and using them to inform public policy.”

The light emitted by a nuclear blast would blind a significant number of people in vehicles, causing accidents and snarling possible evacuation routes, according to a Homeland Security Department-funded examination of a nuclear strike's anticipated effect on urban centers including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California oversaw the effort.

The discovery of the protection offered by sheltering in place, even for just a few hours, “has been a game changer,” Brooke Buddemeier, a health physicist at the Livermore laboratory, told a gathering in Los Angeles as he displayed a slide titled, “How Many Lives Can Sheltering Save?”

Radioactive material spread by a nuclear attack on Los Angeles would cause 285,000 casualties among people a mile or more from the site of an explosion if no one in that area sought shelter, Buddemeier said. Seeking protection in a car or another vehicle would reduce that number to 125,000, while taking shelter in a basement near ground level would lower it to 45,000. The center of a large building or a below-ground garage would offer the maximum level of protection from nuclear fallout.

"We'd have no specific exposures," and therefore barely any casualties caused by radiation, he said.

The probability of an extremist entity acquiring a nuclear bomb are "near zero for the foreseeable future," noted Peter Bergen, a fellow with the New America Foundation and the Center on Law and Security at New York University (William Broad, New York Times, Dec. 15).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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