Lawmakers today heard from experts about the immense challenge of emergency response amid the fear and chaos of a successful nuclear attack on the United States.
"While our primary national goal, of course, must be the prevention of a terrorist nuclear attack," said Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, "we must also prepare for the possibility that a determined terrorist will succeed despite our best efforts."
The scenario was based on the detonation of a 10 kiloton weapon within a major American city, the same yield as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki weapons.
"The scale of this disaster would quickly overwhelm even the most prepared city and state governments," Ashton B. Carter, co-director of the Preventive Defense Center at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, told the committee.
The federal government, Carter said, led by the Department of Homeland Security, should take full responsibility for disaster response while tapping the Department of Defense to help with domestic law enforcement.
The casualty rates wrought by such a blast would likely outstrip the most well-planned and comprehensive medical response. For instance, a 10 kiloton blast near the White House would cause 150,000 serious injuries, 70 percent of which would likely result in death. This number would jump four to eight times higher in cities such as New York and Chicago, respectively, according to Cham E. Dallas, director of the Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense at the University of Georgia.
There also wouldn't be enough health care workers to respond to the need for medical treatment. Dallas recommended the government do everything to train and provide incentives for "ancillary health personnel"—pharmacists, dentists, and veterinarians—to support primary providers.
Treating radiation burns would pose an immediate problem as the United States only has the capacity to specially treat 1,500 burn victims. Most of these beds are already taken, Dallas said, meaning "Even a small nuclear event will totally overwhelm our hospitals' ability to take of resulting burn casualties."
Also, treating burns requires medicine for the onset of infection, but as Roger C. Molander of the RAND Corporation testified, hospitals rely on "just-in-time" inventories and would run out quickly. Replenishing the stores would prove difficult as the President would initially shut down the transportation network to ensure another nuclear bomb wasn't traveling to another target.
The government should stockpile medicine at military bases, police stations, and jails, Dallas said.
Providing accurate and timely information during the aftermath of the explosion is also critical to reducing casualties, witnesses said. News of the attack will spur panic and mass evacuations, with many people fleeing into the radioactive fallout rather than away from it. Whether on foot or in a vehicle, some citizens would receive a fatal dose of radiation exposure, while others would absorb enough to increase the likelihood that they will develop cancer in the future, and possibly die.
New York has responded to this need by creating NY-ALERT, a web-based, all-hazards alert and notification system to quickly provide residents with accurate information. John R. Gibb, director of the state's Emergency Management Office, said the network would allow distribution of emergency information on various media including the Emergency Alert System, e-mail, text messages, and reverse-9-1-1 calls to traditional and mobile telephones.
How, then, to protect first responders working in areas contaminated by radiation? New York, for instance, does not expect first responders to expose themselves to a dose of radiation larger than 5 Roentgen Equivalent Man (REMs), but as Gibbs noted, first responders after a nuclear explosion "will have life saving and security related missions to perform in areas where exposures could be hundereds of REMs."
Whatever the permitted dosage of radiation, Carter said, first responders should have the choice to enter the radiation zone and should not be able to return to it after absorbing the permitted dose.