The What If Possibility: A Chilling Report

In a 23-page report released late last month – The Day After: Action in the 24 Hours Following a Nuclear Blast in an American City  – former senior U.S. defense officials asked, “What will we actually do on the day after prevention fails?”  

Weighing the merits of whether the nation’s approach to nuclear terrorist attacks should emphasize prevention or response, the report reiterated the prevailing view that “prevention remains by far the best protection against nuclear terrorism” – and also suggested, hopefully, that “[E]nriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium is beyond the reach of sub-state groups.”  But the report also pointed out that setbacks to nuclear counter-proliferation discussions with North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia “have increased the probability of nuclear terrorism.”

The general thrust of the report led to a recommendation that would reverse the virtually sacred tenet of the National Response Plan that all disasters are “local.”  The report says otherwise. “The federal government should stop pretending that state and local officials will be able to control the situation on the Day After,” the authors of the report say. “… Law and regulation should stipulate that a nuclear detonation automatically triggers a full federal response.”

Although federal “support” to governors and mayors can perhaps work up to a point, the report says, such support is “not appropriate for large disasters like a nuclear detonation.”  The report specifically criticizes the federal government for its failure to plan realistically, saying that no plan to cope with nuclear terrorism currently exists at the national level (although one such plan is reportedly being drafted). Any response plan that is developed, the report said, should include a previously agreed-upon (and exercised) incident command structure specific to a nuclear terrorism scenario, and should be coordinated with state and local responders and authorities. 

Harvard and Stanford, Carter and Perry

The Day After report was based on an April workshop hosted by the Preventive Defense Project of Harvard and Stanford Universities.  The project co-directors are Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry.  Carter served as President Bill Clinton’s assistant secretary of defense for international security policy and was an advisor to John Kerry during the latter’s 2004 presidential campaign.  Perry served as Clinton’s deputy secretary of defense and, later, as Clinton’s secretary of defense; he was undersecretary of defense for research and engineering during the Carter administration.  

The workshop studied a scenario involving the detonation of a ten-kiloton nuclear device.  According to the report, ten kilotons would be the approximate yield of a fully successful entry-level fission bomb made by a competent terrorist organization; ten kilotons would be about the same yield as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs.  

The authors of the report recognized the possibility – or, perhaps, likelihood – that the first terrorist nuclear “The federal government should stop pretending that state and local officials will be able to control the situation on the Day After,” the authors say attempt might well be a “fizzle” of lower yield. Of the two types of nuclear weapons – highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium – that might be available to terrorists, the authors agreed, the more likely terrorist device would be an easier-to-handle HEU device. Rather than seeking to achieve an air burst, the scenario posited in the report would be either a ground burst, or one detonated in a very tall building – 20 stories or higher.  Although a ground burst would keep damage within a smaller radius, it would yield considerably more radioactive fallout. The authors of the report said that Washington, D.C., would be the most likely target of choice.  

Not Just One Attack, But Several

Rather alarmingly, the report also said that there is “no reason to believe” that terrorists would deploy and detonate so-called “loose nukes” only one at a time – “wherever terrorists got one weapon, they might have obtained several.”  The first detonation would almost certainly come without warning. Any U.S. response plan that might be developed thus would have to assume that there would be follow-on attacks – and that possibility, or likelihood, would have “major consequences” affecting the development and implementation of evacuation plans for other cities – which after the first nuclear detonation would be in a continuing state of panic.

For the city that endured the initial blast, the report said, “there is little that could be done for those in the area in and around the blast zone.” Responders therefore would have to concentrate on “minimizing the radiation dose to the population further downwind and preventing chaos amongst the rest of the population, which would be physically unaffected but traumatized and deprived of whatever utilities and services were located in the affected area.”  

One minor item of slightly encouraging news is that the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effects on communications after a ground burst would be limited for the most part to the areas physically destroyed.  In addition, the communication system elements that did survive probably would be up and running only a few minutes after the detonation. The direction and shape of the radioactive fallout plume would be dependent on wind and rain conditions.  

The managing of short-term sheltering requirements, the prompt evacuation of cities, and the long-term effects of radiation exposure all would present major challenges. For those living or working close to the “hot” fallout region, the report said, “most sheltering will not be effective.”  For most survivors of the immediate blast, the report recommends sheltering below ground “for three or so days until radiation levels have subsided and only then … [proceed] to evacuate the area.”  In the area of the fallout plume, light shelters could offer significant protection.  Lethal radiation doses would range from five to ten square miles within one day, with varying but usually lesser doses beyond that range. 

Advance Planning an Urgent Requirement

Federal and state officials and first responders should develop plans ahead of time, the report emphasized, for determining which roads in the affected area should perhaps be closed to the public for three days (to permit full access for emergency services personnel and vehicles), and which should remain open – and for how long.  Implementation would depend on the direction and size of the fallout plume.  The report notes that modeling assistance is available from Department of Energy national laboratories, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and the National Weather Service.  

Radiation exposure policies invite trade-offs.  Allowing residents to return to their homes early probably would lead to higher cancer rates later in life – but the other principal option, abandoning their homes and other possessions, would be an equally difficult choice for most citizens.  The report notes that the city center itself would remain too radioactive to rebuild for at least a year and perhaps longer.  Another critical consideration would be the need toentify sites that could be used for the temporary storage of radioactive wastes.“

The key to a rational approach to the dilemma of radiation exposure will require informed consent, which in turn depends on education – of responders and the public,” the report says – adding, though, that experience with previous wartime catastrophes “shows that, with leadership and training, this unnecessary additional loss of life can be avoided.”

The report also addresses such topics as the development of advanced technologies for the radiochemical forensic analysis of the weapon debris. Improving these capabilities would have only a limited deterrence value, however.  “Deterrence through threat of punishment, while a familiar concept that is comforting to many strategists, will therefore only have utility in scenarios when the government ultimately responsible for the bomb acted knowingly and willfully.”  The report does not address a scenario in which a nation-state (Pakistan is perhaps an obvious example) has a conflicted government – i.e., one where an intelligence agency with access to nuclear weapons technologies is acting at cross-purposes with the elected national leadership.

Continuity of Government a Top Priority

Considering the impact that a nuclear detonation and the threat of more to come would have on the continuity of the American form of government, the report warns that extraordinary measures to deal with the aftermath of nuclear terrorism must be “temporary” in nature, have a specified “sunset date,” and would have to be quickly reviewed “when the campaign of terror subsides or ends.”

The significance of the Day After report is perhaps more noteworthy in light of the 9 May White House release of Homeland Security Presidential Directive/HSPD-20, which addresses the thorny topic of national continuity policy during catastrophic emergencies that result in extraordinary levels of mass casualties as well as widespread damage and the disruption of government operations. More specifically, HSPD-20 “prescribes continuity requirements for all executive departments and agencies, and provides guidance for state, local, territorial, and tribal governments, and private-sector organizations … to ensure a comprehensive and integrated national continuity program that will enhance the credibility of our national security posture and enable a more rapid and effective response to and recovery from a national emergency.”  

Additional evidence that official Washington is becoming more and more serious about continuity-of-government policies, and about the rising threat of nuclear terrorism, comes from recent discussions concerning the future of Colorado’s Cheyenne Mountain – for many years the military command center for the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD).  The Department of Defense is transferring what remains of its NORAD and Northern Command (NORTHCOM) operations at Cheyenne to nearby Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, where most of its other NORAD and NORTHCOM assets are already headquartered. In addition, the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), which controls the nation’s nuclear weapons assets, recently announced plans to relocate its missile warning systems from Cheyenne Mountain to Schriever AFB, also in Colorado. Finally, unconfirmed but credible rumors suggest that studies already have been initiated to have Cheyenne Mountain serve as the nation’s primary continuity-of-operations facility.

Links for additional information

The Day After Workshop Report https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/dayafterworkshopreport_may2007.pdf

Homeland Security Presidential Directive/HSPD-20 http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/ releases/2007/05/20070509-12.html

John Morton is DomPrep’s channel master for Podcast Interviews, which feature public & private sector leaders in the homeland security field. Since 1998, his conference work has focused on domestic preparedness/ homeland security. Until 2004, he was director of conferences at King Communications Group, Inc. 

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