Less Ready, With 3x the Threats? Our Nuclear Vulnerability Today
“The United States is probably less prepared for any kind of nuclear detonation than it has been at any time since the Cold War,” said Alex Wellerstein, historian of science and tech at Stevens Institute of Technology.
This was one of the opening quotes in an article by Gordon Sander titled “Americans Are Unprepared for a Nuclear Attack”
If you’re like me, the headline and quote had me hooked.
I was not necessarily surprised at Wellerstein’s comments, but once I dug into the article and did my own further research, I was astounded.
First, a quick anecdote. Remember the false alarm in Hawaii in January? For 38 minutes, panic ensued across the island. Videos showed people running in the streets. Many recorded “good byes” on their cell phones for loved ones. Parents were seen trying to shelter their children in manholes.
Many in the media focused their reporting on the flaws in technology that created the false alarm. This deserved its due, of course, but very few focused on the chaos it caused in people. It was an eye-opening illustration of our unreadiness for a nuclear disaster.
We used to be more prepared for nuclear disasters – at least more conscious of the threat. Sander’s article explores the days of early civil defense during the Cold War, in order to contrast that to today.
Many who grew up during that time remember the lessons of Bert the Turtle: Duck and Cover.
While seemingly hokey now, those cartoons got people aware of the dangers out there in the world – and what they might do if that danger showed its face.
However, as Sanders notes, the potential nuclear threats we face now are three times what they were:
There at least three different types of credible nuclear threats that exist today—two more than during the Dr. Strangelove days.
Scenario 1 is the fear that set the original civil defense program in motion—an apocalyptic exchange between the United States and Russia or China involving hundreds of thermonuclear weapons. The U.S. population would theoretically have a 20- to 30-minute warning before the multi-megaton bombs began bursting in air, spreading radioactive fallout in overlapping lethal circles and the lights started going out—for good.
Scenario 2 is the nuclear terrorist scenario, i.e., the detonation of a smaller, 10-kiloton device in a major American city. Those fortunate enough not to be among the tens of thousands killed during the initial blast would have a short time to protect themselves from the subsequent, less serious fallout.
Scenario 3 is the recently emergent North Korea scenario, involving the airburst of a 100- or 150-kiloton device over an American city, perhaps Los Angeles, with, hopefully, a 30-minute warning. The result, according to NUKEMAP, would range from an estimated 195,000 to 241,000 deaths and 510,000 to 629,000 injuries from both the blast and radioactive fallout, depending on the bomb’s yield.
According to researchers for the Reinventing Civil Defense project (RCD), in modern times, scenarios 2 and 3 are the most likely. They are also much more survivable than scenario 1. Ironically, “duck and cover” or the modern equivalent might be futile if scenario 1 were to ever happen. Mutually-assured destruction is the major deterrent for scenario 1, which is mostly true – more on that later.
To survive a terrorist or rogue nation nuclear attack as in scenarios 2 and 3 means, we’ve evolved past duck and cover. The current prescription by government agencies is: “Get inside. Stay inside. Stay tuned.”
Basically, the government recommends you shelter in place until you get the evacuation order or the all clear. This is simple and easy to understand.
But I’ve always thought: “That’s it?” Whenever I see government recommendations.
I can imagine many situations where a dirty terrorist bomb or North Korean EMP nuke might foul up those simple plans. The biggest one being: being able to tune in, assuming you’re able to survive getting inside and staying inside.
Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, acknowledged this in Sander’s article:
“There is much that could be done to lower the casualties of a terror-based nuclear attack, but we are not doing these things.”
It’s not that the government isn’t trying.
In fact, Perry co-authored the report entitled “The Day After: Action Following a Nuclear Blast in a U.S. City.” The document urged the federal government to come up with a realistic contingency plan for dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear terrorist incident, or “informing the American public of its particulars.”
“Remarkably such a plan does not yet exist,” wrote the authors, “although,” they added, “it is being drafted.” Perry, et al., also recommended a new type of fallout shelter program. These would be supplied with stocks of food, water and other gear for several days. Like the thousands of shelters with which civil defense-minded Switzerland has equipped its towns and cities. The authors also suggested building a computer modeling system for rapidly measuring radiation to enable both emergency workers and the public to determine the safest zones downwind from the blast.
It is important to note that these recommendations were made TEN YEARS AGO. As Perry notes, it is questionable whether these measures have been taken. The government does have a rapid radiation modeling capability now. But there has been little movement on the national fallout shelter system idea.
As far as Buddemeier’s advice about how your family can survive a nuclear detonation, Wellerstein would prefer to alter his adviser’s message. “If I had my druthers, I would change the ‘can’ in ‘your family can survive a nuclear detonation’ to ‘might’ survive. I think any communication about nuclear attacks needs to emphasize that the number of dead would be staggering, even with perfect execution of civil defense procedures.”
As Brooke Buddemeier, a certified health physicist and member of the RCD advisory board put it:
“If I had my druthers, I would change the ‘can’ in ‘your family can survive a nuclear detonation’ to ‘might’ survive. I think any communication about nuclear attacks needs to emphasize that the number of dead would be staggering, even with perfect execution of civil defense procedures.”
I think this quote is particularly telling. For whatever reason, the government has not followed through on the recommendations it commissioned the investigation of. It could be the bureaucracy. It could be the staggering cost. It could also be, as Buddemeier suggests, because the odds are too low and the stakes to high.
I think it’s important to emphasize that this is her notion, not mine. I think those of us who choose to prepare “can” survive a nuclear attack. Sure, anyone too close to a blast will be goners or in real trouble. But for those of us with a preparedness mindset, might should always mean can, not the other way around.
This lays bare the reality: civil defense is in the hands of the civilians – it is self-reliance at its most basic.
To further illustrate the point that nuclear readiness is our own responsibility, let’s focus on government history again.
As mentioned before, we remember the civil defense campaigns at the height of the Cold War. JFK was a huge proponent of these programs, but soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis, public interest waned. Budgets were cut for more pressing matters.
It wasn’t until Jimmy Carter that civil defense would be publicly explored again. Carter created FEMA. In addition to nuclear civil defense, FEMA would be an umbrella for all emergency management.
Yet, while new programs reinvigorated the idea of civil defense, it did little else. We know full well how ineffectual and broken FEMA is, and has been. Perhaps from the start.
While FEMA was brandished as a shiny new object for the public, military planners grappled with a dark, ominous idea. The “catechism of Mutually Assured Destruction” was being abandoned.
This became the birth of the era of Continuity of Government (or COG). As an article in Foreign Policy explained in detail:
Carter and his White House were interested in more specific questions. If the presidency could survive after a nuclear war, what exactly would it do afterward? How could the surviving commander in chief be identified? Who would identify him? How would he fulfill the three main functions of the presidency: to be the chief executive of the government, the head of state, and the commander in chief of its armed forces?
Carter’s answers came in the form of Presidential Directive 58, which was issued in the final months of his presidency; Ronald Reagan amended those plans with his own presidential directive in 1983. Their contents inform the continuity of government plans that remain in effect for the Trump administration. They have been the object of a multibillion-dollar pastiche of programs and a magnet for conspiracy theorists around the world.”
I highlighted that last sentence for a reason. I think it’s ironic that any concerns about these plans would be considered “conspiracy theory.” It seems to me no secret that the government is more concerned with preserving itself than its constituents.
The Foreign Policy article on the history of these COG measures continues:
After nuclear war, martial law would almost certainly have to be declared, and the military given extraordinary powers to manage resource distribution. But the government also assumed that some sort of martial law would be required before the start of the actual war. As soon as it believed a war might be imminent, the government planned to move significant parts of the population, specifically those who lived near significant strategic military targets, and policymakers knew this might require a degree of coercion, even force. The military did not like to talk about this scenario, and neither did politicians. Plans were therefore developed in secret and classified, ensuring less visibility and public accountability.
Sure, a “conspiracy theorist” might interpret this reporting as saying that we are going to be rounded up in camps at the slightest indication of a major nationwide crisis. I think that’s hogwash. If that were to happen, I’ll be prepared to evade or resist with my family, regardless.
But really, I think the government is far too inefficient to do that, not for all people. Much less keep any plans to do that under wraps.
The true issue is that the government is not concerned with our welfare – and does not have the logistics to provide for it even if they were – we must provide for this ourselves.
If you’re looking for more advice on forming a personal plan for nuclear fallout, I highly recommend you check out our primer here:
Talk about this plan with your family today.
Have a great weekend, folks! Keep your wits about you.
Preparedness Advisor, My Patriot Supply
www.politico.com, emergency.cdc.gov, foreignpolicy.com