Doctors group assails DHS radiological planning

Published 5 September 2006

Physicians for Social Responsibilty says DHS has no plan to evacuate communities downwind from a dirty nuke attack; field emergency plans inadequate; DHS says report “lacks a grasp of reality”

During the Cold War, one could always find a military official or academic who would explain that surviving a massive a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union was simply a matter of civil defense planning — “with enough shovels,” as one put it, Americans could dig themselves holes to hide in until the fight was over. The RAND Corporation’s Herman Kahn wrote a whole book on the topic, “On Thermonuclear War,” which goes does down as one of the more macabre books in history. Nobody knew what a post-nuclear war world would look like, and those who thought we could easily survive it seemed more apologists for destruction than angels of mercy.

Fortunately, the potential damage of a terrorist radiological attack is not anything as severe as that posed by the Soviet Union. The most likely threat is from a radiological bomb, which would induce panic and force massive evacuations, but would be limited in immediate physical damage. Less likely, but still worth considering, is the possibility that terrorists will get hold of so-called “loose-nukes,” wayward warheads still floating around the former Soviet Union. One of these could cause massive destruction, but it would be limited to a specific geographic region. The odds that terrorists could buy multiple warheads and detonate them simultaneously at once are exceedingly long.

The fact that any radiological attack would be manageable puts the onus once again on government planners to plan for the aftermath. The post-attack world is completely survivable, so there is no excuse for failing to make arrangements. A report from the Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), however, says the government has done just that, neglecting to develop plans to warn, evacuate and treat American citizens. The report points to a list of planning failures:


1. The ability to evacuate communities downwind from the explosion will be the single most important factor in minimizing casualties, yet the government does not have a plan to coordinate information about the attack with prevailing weather conditions. Nor does it have a way to communicate such a decision to the public.

2. Existing medical emergency plans are inadequate. Field medical services are underfunded and understaffed. The PSR study noted that the fifty Disaster Medical Assistance teams sent to help with Hurricane Katrina were quickly overwhelmed.

3. No coordinating authority has been identified to manage the response.


DHS’s response is not comforting. “However well-intentioned, this report seems to lack a grasp of reality,” a spokesman said. “The department is intensely focused on preventing a high-concentrated attack like (nuclear weapons of mass destruction) or a dirty bomb from being detonated somewhere in the homeland. That is our highest priority.” The highest priority it may be, but surely recovery planning should be close second?

-read more in Lara Jakes Jordan’s AP report ; read the PSR report