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WASHINGTON – The most extensive study of the effects of nuclear detonations in four major U.S. cities paints a grim picture of millions of deaths, overwhelmed hospitals and loss of command-and-control capability by government.
But the three-year study by researchers at the Center for Mass Destruction Defense at the University of Georgia says a concerted effort to teach civilians what to do in the event of a nuclear attack is the best – perhaps only – thing that could save an untold number of lives that will otherwise be needlessly lost.
“If a nuclear detonation were to occur in a downtown area, the picture would be bleak there,” said Cham Dallas, director of the program and professor in the college of pharmacy. “But in urban areas farther from the detonation, there actually is quite a bit that we can do. In certain areas, it may be possible to turn the death rate from 90 percent in some burn populations to probably 20 or 30 percent – and those are very big differences – simply by being prepared well in advance.”
While America was once prepared for nuclear war with civil defense shelters stocked with food and supplies and educational programs on how to react to a detonation, the report says the threat of a nuclear attack within the U.S. has grown significantly in recent years.
“The likelihood of a nuclear attack in an American city is steadily increasing, and the consequences will be overwhelming,” said Dallas. “So we need to substantially increase our preparation.”
The study looked at the impact of nuclear detonations of two sizes in New York, Washington, Chicago and Atlanta. Both 20-kiloton and 550-kiloton blasts were modeled in what the authors claim is the most advanced and detailed simulation published in open scientific literature.
The entire report, which also takes into account prevailing weather patterns and block-level population data from the U.S. Census Bureau, is published in the March issue of the International Journal of Health Geographics.
In the study’s worst-case scenario, one 550-kiloton detonation in New York City was shown to result in a fallout plume extending the length of Long Island, resulting in the deaths of 5 million.
A similar weapon detonated in the nation’s capital would destroy hospitals in Washington, but its fallout cloud would also incapacitate hospitals as far away as Baltimore, a city 40 miles from the District of Columbia.
Even a relatively small 20-kiloton blast in a downtown area would result in almost unimaginable devastation – leaving debris tens of feet thick in streets with buildings 10 stories or higher. Roughly half the population in those areas would be killed, mainly from collapsed buildings. Most of those surviving the initial blast would be exposed to a fatal dose of radiation.
The larger bomb would create additional and substantial casualties from burns. Mass fires would consume cities, reaching out nearly four miles in all directions from the detonation site.
“The hospital system has about 1,500 burn beds in the whole country, and of these maybe 80 to 90 percent are full at any given time,” said William Bell, senior research scientist and a faculty member of the college of public health. “There’s no way of treating the burn victims from a nuclear attack with the existing medical system.”
The report points out hospitals, trauma centers and other medical assets are likely to be in “the fatality plume,” rendering them essentially inoperable in the crisis.
“Among the consequences of this outcome would be the probable loss of command-and-control, mass casualties that will have to be treated in an unorganized response by hospitals on the periphery, as well as other expected chaotic outcomes from inadequate administration in a crisis,” says the report. “Vigorous, creative and accelerated training and coordination among the federal agencies tasked for WMD response, military resources, academic institutions and local responders will be critical for large-scale WMD events involving mass casualties.”
Bell said a 20-kiloton nuclear weapon could be manufactured by terrorists and countries such as North Korea and Iran. The larger warhead is commonly found in the nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union and is likely to be stolen by terrorists.
The report confirms other findings that America is extremely vulnerable to a nuclear attack and unprepared to deal with its aftermath.
In a July 31, 2005, confidential memo to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Pentagon analyst John Brinkerhoff concluded: “The United States is unprepared to mitigate the consequences of a nuclear attack. We were unable to find any group of office with a coherent approach to this very important aspect of homeland security.”
In other words, after having spent more than $300 billion to protect the homeland in the last five years, America is no closer to a civil defense strategy for a nuclear strike by terrorists.
“This is a bad situation,” wrote Brinkerhoff. “The threat of a nuclear attack is real, and action is needed now to learn how to deal with one.”
Bits and pieces of a plan are in place, as Brinkerhoff suggests. For instance, the Energy Department’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory is geared up to use real-time weather data, within minutes of a bombing, to create a computer model charting the likely path of a radioactive cloud. There’s just one problem. There is no communications system in place designed to reach the people most in need of the information.
The government’s own National Planning Scenario projects even a small, improvised 10-kiloton nuclear bomb would likely kill hundreds of thousands in a medium-sized city. The carnage was estimated at 204,600 dead in Washington, D.C. – with another 90,800 injured or sickened. Another 24,580 would likely die of thyroid cancer later because the simple compound potassium iodide, which can prevent it, was not made available to civilians in advance of the disaster.
President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the 9/11 commission have all concluded a nuclear terrorist attack is not only the nation’s No. 1 nightmare but also something of an inevitability at some time in the future.
The University of Georgia study calls for a public awareness campaign to teach civilians what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Even simple measures, the researchers point out, can save many lives. For instance, since radioactive clouds move downwind, a person can determine which way the wind is blowing and flee in a perpendicular direction to the wind. Even on foot, people can move one to five miles can be the difference between life and death. On the other hand, though, people in areas upwind from the detonation site are better off staying put.
Dallas is scheduled to address the United Nations for the second time in as many years where he will discuss options for repairing the crumbling sarcophagus surrounding the reactor that triggered the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. He will also talk about the consequences of a nuclear attack and what nations can do about it.
“We want to try to encourage people to pay attention to this, because it’s not all the end of the world,” said Dallas. “There are actually steps that one can take to save lives. But we’re running out of time.”
The Center for Mass Destruction Defense is funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is dedicated to reducing casualties and social disruption from weapons of mass destruction and natural disasters.
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