Jane Vaynman"This is a test of the emergency…"

Yesterday’s NYT op-ed by Secretary William Perry, Ash Cater, and Michael May at first seemed rather boring to me. What should the government do to prepare for the day after a nuclear terrorist attack? All I really picked up was the tone of, “something must be done.”

Good thing I read their full report, because there are a number of interesting and curious points in there worth noting in more detail. Below are few of those which caught my attention.

The report recommends that more efforts should be made to integrate “modern media” (text messages to cell phones, blackberries, etc) into the federal response. This recommendation brings to mind some very interesting research being done at MIT on using cell phone activity to track areas where people are concentrated. If there are ways to track people during a Madonna concert, then I can only imagine how such information would be useful in identifying concentrations of people in danger areas or even sending targeted instructions based on location.

The authors also argue that post-attack response must accommodate for a worst case scenario – that there are more attacks coming. Such planning is important for two reasons: first a multi city attack is just as likely as a single attack (if terrorists can get one bomb, maybe it is not much harder to get two or four) and second, it is likely that people in other cities will expect and fear additional attacks, causing chaos if there is no plan to manage their reactions. This second point is important because it suggests that from the point of view of response, we don’t need to argue about the exact likelihood of one bomb vs. many; it is better to plan for many.

Perhaps the most interesting recommendation in the report is for a fallout shelter program. (No, this is a serious shelter comment, for once.)

shelters deserve a comeback. Radioactivity, and in particular radioactive fallout, poses a problem peculiar to nuclear terrorism. For most people in the city struck, their best bet to avoid serious radiation exposure would be to shelter below ground for three or so days until radiation levels had subsided and only then to evacuate the area.


In view of these facts, a new type of fallout shelter program – very different and much more practical than the 1950s-style civil defense program – should be promoted by the federal government as a cheap and effective way to minimize the radiation exposure of most people downwind of a nuclear terrorist attack. The Cold War “civil defense” shelter program was mocked because it could not offer realistic protection against an attack of thousands of warheads from the Soviet Union. But against one or a few terrorist nuclear weapons, sheltering in place is the best way for most people to protect themselves.

The rate at which people are exposed to radiation (the dose rate) subsides in inverse proportion to the time after the blast. People outside the immediate downwind hot zone will receive a smaller dose of radiation if they shelter themselves for a period of three days or so (the recommended sheltering period can be determined and communicated by federal authorities at the time). If they try to leave on the first day when the radiation is strongest, they will receive a larger dose because they will be exposed to intense radiation as they walk or wait in traffic on clogged roads to evacuate. Shelters that will only be occupied for a few days do not need to be equipped with large stocks of food, water, and other supplies.

I am not exactly clear whether the report is recommending that the federal government build fallout shelters in key locations or encourage citizens to build their own.

Or perhaps, should some existing structures be amended to also serve as temporary shelters? I am sure I am not the only one who has only half-jokingly noted that the Woodley Park metro is awfully deep and cave-like.


  1. Lee Dunbar (History)

    All this when “Jericho”, a series on CBS (like “The Day After”) got a huge fan response to not be canceled causing CBS executives to bring it back for a second season. Pop culture, not just policy recommendations, are getting back to this mind set of preparing for a nuclear attack.

  2. hass (History)

    So we’re back to fear-mongering and building fall-out shelters… we already have the domestic surveillance. All we need are loyalty oats and black-lists, and its the 1950’s all over again!

  3. Alex W. (History)

    What is the likelihood of cell phone services being operational after a nuclear detonation? The report doesn’t seem to say, but I’d expect a lot of infrastructure damage for a technology that depends on receiver domes mounted on the exterior of buildings, yes? Just wondering. I’m neglecting the EMP question entirely since I’d assume at such a low altitude that the EMP wouldn’t be that big of a deal, right?

    I have been thinking about trying to trick-out the Google Maps API into allowing you to do your own “what would happen if a bomb of X size went off in Y place” drawings. It theoretically shouldn’t be too hard, though the API is pretty clunky when it comes to drawing circles (they have to be plotted point-by-point around the circumfrance). Anyway, it would be neat to really try and also have the possibility of indicating wind direction and strength for a rough indication of fallout possibilities. It wouldn’t look any worse, or probably be any less informative, than the graphics in that report.

    I think the shelter point is one well taken, and not just laughed off. These would be places to go in the event that a nuclear attack has already gone off, yes? And you are trying to avoid getting irradiated for a few days until the dust settles, yes? That sounds a lot smarter to me than a New Orleans-style mass attempt to flee the city all at once, and a lot smarter than just hoping it doesn’t happen.

  4. Patrick Coyle (History)

    Depending on the type of device, how dirty it is, the old DHS recommendation of duct taping the windows of your house/apartment might suffice.

  5. Martin Butcher (History)

    In the PSR report on this topic that was produced last Summer, The US and Nuclear Terrorism, PSR physicians suggested exactly the same thing. It simply makes sense for people to stay inside, with windows close, for up to three days. Then evacuate. No need for fallout shelters, at most taping of windows and doors. This isn’t fearmongering, it’s sensible policy based on available medical evidence of the effects of fallout. PSR is hardly a hawkish group, and their report can be read at: http://www.psr.org/site/PageServer?pagename=StillDangerouslyUnpreparedCopy

  6. James (History)

    Completely unrelated, but I’m surprised you haven’t had a Russia CFE post yet Jane.

  7. CKR (History)

    Jane, if there is a serious terrorist threat, shouldn’t we prepare for it?

    Like hurricanes, for example?

    If there is talk about the threat (unendingly, it seems), and if the threat is real, then shouldn’t people know what to do if the worst occurs?

    All these questions become irrelevant if the talk about the threat is political only, for the purpose of spreading fear throughout the electorate.

    You can’t have it both ways, although this government seems to want to: A terrible threat out there that we must give up our civil liberties to confront, but no, don’t bother your pretty little heads about learning something about it.

  8. Russ Wellen (History)

    If I’m anywhere near the blast—and I probably will be since I work near mid-town Manhattan—count me among those who’d like to killed in the initial blast. The Day After just might be too horrible to be worth it.

  9. jay denari

    I was thinking along Alex’s lines. Although the idea of working cell phones and blackberries into disaster planning IS important for almost any other kind of disaster, I doubt it’ll mean much for nukes. I suspect EMP WOULD actually be an issue in the nearby suburbs of an attacked city, but probably not much beyond that.Given that terrorists are VERY unlikely to launch missiles at us, we probably would get no warning of such an attack. Anyone in the victimized city is likely to be toast, but the suburbs and elsewhere could actually benefit from shelters, at least for those trapped away from home. Of course, I’d bet the vast majority of our shelters haven’t been cleaned in decades (they’re probably storage today), most people don’t know where they are, and many probably aren’t even labeled any more, so they’d need significant work to be viable safehouses.

  10. Rich (History)

    Folks like Russ (above) are one of the reasons the Bad Guys, aka Al Queda, are making such inroads into changing societal thoughts about ‘trying’ to make terrorism go away…i.e. ‘Kill Me first…it’s too hard to deal with’. With whiners like this, AQ and the like have already won.

    There have been billions spent by nations worldwide (not just the US) in regards to how to survive a nuclear detonation with fallout in either single or multiple attacks. Even global thermonuclear war brought about very workable solutions for survival for those immediately outside the effects of blast, thermal, and close in radiation.

    Dozens of shelter plans, both pre-built, built-in, or expedient were (and have been and still are) available pnline after creation by the government decades ago. Most were actually tested in real nuclear test blast zones during the above ground testing years, to measure the ability of human survival, with blast pressure of up to 50psi. Putting mass between people and fresh fallout, by the use of fallout shelters, has proven to work in saving lives.

    Convincing people to have 2 weeks of food and water, basic sanitation needs, and patience to wait 14 days for safe egress after the attack still is not common knowledge, due to people just not wanting to think about it. Even Jericho glossed over these simple facts in the first few episodes.

    Nearly all the shelter plans ever created by the US government are available online. So are shelter management, shelter stocking, regulations, planning, technical specifications, studies and much more.

    Emergency management agencies at all levels still have access to quite a bit of fallout survival help, and FEMA still offers free Radiological Emergency Management courses online. With all this available (and our state and federal governments NOT planning on renewing a national shelter plan for our citizens) it is time for individuals to spend just a few hours doing their own research, making some plans, and figuring out what THEY need, to shelter themselves.

    After Katrina, do you STILL think that Uncle Sam can take care of ANY large number of victims of ANY catastrophic event, nuclear or otherwise? Nope…take advantage of the latest studies on shelter tech, understand prevailing seasonal weather patterns for areas where you live, and learn what might be possible targets for terror or other enemy nuke attacks. Use Google to find the #1 webpage that has “nuclear targets” for the US as a starting point.

    And act…get a prep kit, have a plan, and make sure your family knows what to do in the event that a real fallout situation develops upwind. Until then, simply pay attention to the news, get an all-alert type weather radio, and live your life.

    It’s really not that hard.