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Dealing With The Threat
The other day I heard of a report that concluded the City of New York would have real problems evacuating its citizens, and those working in the five boroughs from outside, in the event of a serious terror attack or devastating hurricane.
So it reminded me of a piece from April 16, 2008, on the Global Security Newswire that I’ve been meaning to combine with other work but present now.
The risk of a terrorist nuclear attack on a U.S. city has grown in the past five years, an expert told a U.S. Senate committee yesterday.
“I definitely conclude the threat is greater and is increasing every year with the march of technology,” said Cham Dallas, director of the Institute for Health Management and Mass Destruction Defense at the University of Georgia.
Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Dallas offered projections of the damage that would be caused by the detonation of a small nuclear weapon in Washington.
He said the death toll from a 1-kiloton device could be about 25,000 people, while fatalities from a 10-kiloton bomb could reach 100,000, the Washington Post reported.
More could perish if they succumbed to the desire to flee the city and thus exposed themselves to additional radiation, Dallas and other public health experts testified.
Indeed, one of the biggest challenges facing the federal government if a low-yield nuclear bomb exploded in a major U.S. city might not be evacuating hundreds of thousands of residents. It would be convincing them to stay put, the experts said.
As counterintuitive as it appears, large swaths of major U.S. cities would not be rendered unlivable by a 10-kiloton nuclear blast, which would be slightly smaller than the bombs the United States used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II, the officials said.
To be sure, the blast would have devastating consequences. In Washington, for example, a blast near the White House would destroy the area from Constitution Avenue to K Street, according to the Dallas model.
The city would face about 100,000 fatalities and about 150,000 serious injuries from the nuclear bomb cited, Dallas said. According to the study, a cloud of radiation in the shape of a cigar would extend from the blast zone to Capitol Hill and stretch eastward into Maryland. But the blast would not devastate the entire city and radiation would be confined to the relatively small area, Dallas said.
“People upwind would not need to take any action,” said Ashton Carter, co-director of the Preventive Defense Project at Harvard University. “Downwind, but outside the hot cigar, the best move for many people would be not to move at all, but to seek moderate shelter.”
The hearing was the third that committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and senior Republican Susan Collins (Maine) held to examine the government’s ability to prepare for and respond to an act of nuclear terrorism.
“A 10-kiloton device – a plausible yield for a bomb constructed by terrorists – could be smuggled into a seaport as cargo, flown over a city in a private plane, or driven into a city in a truck,” Collins said. “We hope that the improvements we’ve made in port security and in other areas would make that difficult to carry out but we can’t exclude the possibility of such a successful enterprise.”
Carter and Dallas said the possibility of such an attack is higher than ever. Lieberman said it would be important for residents in outlying areas of a city to know they do not have to rush to the highways. But despite their conclusions, Dallas and Carter agreed that mass panic would likely ensue after a blast.
Dallas predicted that as many as 500,000 residents would try to flee the Washington area in the event of a blast. Collins believes public understanding of what to do in the event of an attack has “gone backward” in recent years. “I think the public in many ways is less prepared today than we were at the height of the Cold War,” she said.