Good news! You’ve got a pretty good chance of surviving a terrorist’s nuclear blast in your city -- especially if you’re a rich white man. Women, ethnic minorities and lower socioeconomic classes are more likely to be “stricken by psychiatric disorders,” and once they start going crazy they’re less likely to survive.
That’s just one of the startling revelations in the new second edition of “Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation,” a 130-page report produced, thanks to your tax dollars, by the Obama administration's National Security Staff Interagency Policy Coordination Subcommittee for Preparedness and Response to Radiological and Nuclear Threats. (I’m not making this up, honest.)
And there’s more good news. Even if you are not rich, white and male, a nuke detonated in a major U.S. city is “is more survivable than most people think.” That’s what “an official deeply involved in the planning” told the New York Times’ William Broad, that intrepid reporter of all things nuclear, who broke the story.
If you are a fan of Kafka or Alice in Wonderland, you might want to read the whole report for yourself (though first you’ll have to memorize the 50-plus acronyms it uses). For the rest of you, here are just a few of the more surreal tidbits:
If a terrorist detonates a nuclear weapon in your city, you’ll have “a few seconds” after seeing the flash “to take limited protective measures.” But “five seconds … is enough time for a person with the right information to seek basic shelter (e.g., duck and cover),” the authors assure us, although they admit that when the government promoted “duck and cover” during the Cold War era it left the public “skeptical of preparedness messages.” Are you skeptical yet?
You can get “the right information” from this report, stuff you might not have figured out on your own, like “Survivors should not seek shelter in buildings that are on fire.”
And there will be plenty of buildings on fire, especially in the MD (Moderate Damage) zone, estimated to be a half-mile to a mile from the blast point. (The SD [Severe Damage] zone, within a half-mile of ground zero, will be obliterated, so it gets little attention in this manual for emergency responders.) In the MD “fires fed by broken gas lines, ruptured fuel tanks, and other sources will be prevalent … a major threat to survivors” and to responders rushing to the rescue.
Nevertheless, “search and rescue missions should be practicable in the MD zone,” and “many casualties will survive.” The MD will be “the focus of early life-saving operations,” since that’s where survivors “will benefit most from urgent medical care.”
Responders apparently won’t be deterred by the fires, nor by the “elevated radiation levels, unstable buildings and other structures, downed power lines, ruptured gas lines, hazardous (perhaps airborne) chemicals, sharp metal objects, broken glass … substantial rubble and crashed and overturned vehicles in streets.”
“Passage of rescue vehicles [will be] difficult or impossible” in the MD. “It will take a concerted effort to get responder resources to keep pushing forward.” Their path will have to be cleared by “heavy equipment and debris removal capabilities.” Oh, and “radiation levels in the MD zone may be very high.” All in all, “responder units within one or two miles from ground zero may be compromised or completely nonfunctional” while thousands lie dying.
The responders will be moving in from the LD (Low Damage) zone, where the streets will be filled with broken glass, but anyone wounded by the flying glass will be ignored as long as they are “ambulatory.” Of course responders will face that pesky little problem of EMP (electromagnetic pulse): “Communications equipment (cell towers, etc.) electronics destroyed or disrupted, computer equipment electrical components destroyed, control systems electrical components destroyed, water and electrical system control components destroyed or disrupted, and other electronic devices damage.” Up to four miles from ground zero, “it may be days before communications capabilities are reestablished. Within this area, all communications capabilities will be destroyed or severely hindered.”
Yet the report is filled with detailed plans for “search and rescue missions” and “urgent medical care” somehow being carried out in the MD, all supposedly coordinated with impressive precision by “incident commanders,” because “delays in issuing and implementing recommendations (or orders) could result in a large number of unnecessary fatalities.” How they’ll get all those orders issued with no functioning communication system remains unexplained.
As the Citizen Corps Web site points out, “given the daytime population density of a large modern city, the number that would be hurt by prompt effects of the blast or threatened by fallout particles could be in the hundreds of thousands.” And it’s obvious that in the real world -- as opposed to the report’s fantasy world -- the vast majority would get no medical care and thus would die.
But wait. There is still more good news: “Response capabilities more than five miles away from ground zero are likely to be only nominally affected by blast and EMP and should be able to mobilize and respond, provided they are not within the path of dangerous fallout levels.” And the DF (Dangerous Fallout) zone will extend only a mere “10 - 20 miles” (though there will be a “larger contaminated area beyond the DF zone” too). What’s more, all the dangerous fallout will come down “within about 24 hours.” So the millions in that zone will be pretty safe if they quickly get inside the closest “robust shelter” and stay there for more than a day. (That includes survivors in the MD, apparently -- if they can find any robust buildings that aren’t burning.)
Of course “effective decontamination” is required before entering a shelter. What’s “effective”? At one point, the report says that “simply brushing off outer garments will be sufficient to protect oneself and others.” But at other points the advice is quite different: “Remove clothes and shower … place your clothing in a plastic bag and seal or tie the bag … put on clean clothing, if available.”
No clean clothes (and probably no showers) in that handy shelter building? Don’t worry. All those naked folks can “assume that the dominant behavioral response will likely be … pro-social, altruistic behaviors.” Why, it might even be fun.
Sooner or later, “effective decontamination methods that are easiest to implement” will begin: vacuuming, fire hosing, steam cleaning, and the like. If that doesn’t work, the authorities will proceed to “sandblasting” and “road resurfacing.” As they say in Australia, no worries, mate.
To be fair, the report does admit there are some big problems to solve: “People will not be able to discern which shelters are more adequate than others.” Plus there’s “the natural instinct to run from danger” rather than duck into the nearest building. The answer is advance education, now: “Response planners should implement public messaging prior to the disaster.”
One good way to get the word out is to target “grade school students who can bring the information home … in the form of school calendars and book bags labeled with safety tips.” And parents should be informed about schools’ plans to keep their kids “sheltered-in-place” -- even though (in bold letters) “procedures that separate children from parents will be unsuccessful.”
By the way, all this planning assumes only a 10-kiloton explosion, which puts “several hundred thousand people at risk of death” if they don’t get the word about shelter within a few minutes. Of course 10K is a mere firecracker in terms of today’s nuclear arsenals. But the study assumes terrorists won’t be able to manage anything bigger.
Why make such an assumption? I found a clue in my research on President Eisenhower's approach to nuclear danger. Ike was determined that in case of a nuclear attack the U.S. should be prepared for “digging ourselves out of ashes, starting again,” and winning a nuclear war. “If we assumed too much damage,” he told subordinates, “there would be little point in planning.” So he directed civil defense planners to keep their “assumptions as to the extent of damage within limits which provide a basis for feasible planning,” rather than dealing with what would really happen. Maybe the same unreality prevails in the Obama administration?
Today’s planners certainly sound a lot like Eisenhower, who wanted to teach Americans to be “resolute survivors… a concerted national effort at patriotic renewal and spiritual advance.” The big problem, in his view, was “how you get people to face such a possibility without getting hysterical.”
In 2010, the head of FEMA told the Times’ William Broad: “We have to get past the mental block that says it’s too terrible to think about. … We have to be ready to deal with it.” The director for preparedness policy at the National Security Council declared that the administration wants “to enhance national resilience --- to withstand disruption, adapt to change and rapidly recover.”
Broad seems eager to promote the upbeat message: “The big surprise was how taking shelter for as little as several hours made a huge difference in survival rates. ‘This has been a game changer,' Brooke Buddemeier, a Livermore health physicist, told a Los Angeles conference.” If everyone living a mile or more from ground zero of an attack took shelter “at the core of a big office building or in an underground garage, ‘We’d have no significant exposures,’ Mr. Buddemeier told the conference, and thus virtually no casualties from fallout.”
Of course they’d actually have to stay sheltered for at least 24 hours and maybe “several days,” according to the report -- without food, many bleeding from the flying glass, some blinded from seeing the flash. Then there would be all those women, ethnic minorities, and lower socioeconomic folks who would be going crazy. Oh, and did I mention that “many people will be relocated for months to years at great distances downwind?” The report mentions it only very incidentally. No worries, mate.
Reading this report reminded me of my days doing research in the Eisenhower Library, trying to master the art of laughing and crying at the same time. The tragedy of Eisenhower was that, as he created an image of a president pursuing peace, he blocked possibilities for disarmament and Cold War reconciliation at every turn. Instead he expanded the nuclearized military-industrial complex (and then on his last day in office fooled history into thinking he opposed it) while making fantasy plans for surviving and winning a nuclear war.
Now the Obama administration wants us to learn to accept the prospect of a major American city destroyed. Its report never even mentions the possibility of averting disaster by changing the U.S. policies that enrage people, whether abroad or at home. Maybe the administration has another interagency task force working on that problem.
But I doubt it. They would have to treat those who dream of using nukes as monstrous people who may nonetheless have rational grievances worth paying attention to. Remember that our own government has reams of plans to use nukes in the worst-case scenario if its grievances are ignored. But the fundamental principle of U.S. foreign policy since World War II has been to divide all humanity into two groups: people like us, the good guys, who are by definition rational even when planning to use, or actually using, nuclear weapons; and the bad guys, the irrational evildoers bent on wreaking destruction for the sake of destruction. In that scenario, there’s no point in even thinking about the bad guys’ motivating grievances, much less trying to address them constructively.
No administration can even hint at challenging that principle and hope to get its leader re-elected. Politically it’s so much safer just to spread the good news that a nuke in your city is more survivable than you thought -- especially if you’re a rich white man.