The chance that a nuclear bomb would strike a US city is slim, but nuclear experts say it’s not out of the question.
A nuclear attack in a large metropolitan area is one of the 15 disaster scenarios for which the US Federal Emergency Management Agency has an emergency strategy. Its emergency plan includes deploying first-responders, sheltering evacuees immediately, and decontaminating radiation victims.
For everyday citizens, FEMA has some simple advice: Get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned.
But according to Irwin Redlener, a public-health expert at Columbia University who specializes in disaster preparedness, these federal guidelines aren’t enough to prepare a city for a nuclear attack.
” “There’s not a single American jurisdiction that even has a plan for dealing with a nuclear explosion,” said Redlener.
This includes six cities that Redlener believes are most likely to be the targets of an attack New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, DC. : These cities are not only some of the largest and densest in the country, but home to critical infrastructure (like energy plants, financial hubs, government facilities, and wireless transmission systems) that are vital to US security.
Each of the cities has an emergency management website which informs residents about how to respond in case of a disaster. However, most sites do not mention nuclear attacks. Residents are unable to find out how they can protect themselves in the event of a nuclear attack on one of these cities.
“Redlener stated that this scenario would not end life as we currently know it. “It would just be a horrific, catastrophic disaster with many, many unknown and cascading consequences.”
Cities might struggle to provide emergency services after a nuclear strike
Nuclear bombs can produce clouds of dust and sand-like radioactive particles that disperse into the atmosphere — what’s referred to as nuclear fallout. Radiation poisoning can be caused by this fallout, and can cause serious damage to the cells of the body.
The debris takes at least 15 minutes to reach ground level after an explosion, so a person’s response during that period could be a matter of life and death. The best way to protect yourself from falling debris is by seeking shelter in the basement or center of any brick, steel or concrete structure.
“A small amount of knowledge can help save many lives,” Brooke Buddemeier told Business Insider. She is a health scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Buddemeier advises emergency managers about how to protect populations from nuclear attacks.
“If we can just get people inside, we can significantly reduce their exposure,” he said.
According to Redlener the most critical scenario is not a full-scale nuclear war but an individual nuclear explosion, such as a North Korean missile launch. Right now, he said, North Korean missiles are capable of reaching Alaska or Hawaii, but they could soon be able to reach cities along the West Coast.
Another source of an attack could be a nuclear device that was built, purchased, or stolen by a terrorist organization. All six cities Redlener identified are listed as “Tier 1” areas by the US Department of Homeland Security, meaning they’re considered places where a terrorist attack would yield the most devastation.
“There’s no such thing as a safe city,” Redlener stated. “In New York City, the detonation of a Hiroshima-sized bomb, or even one a little smaller, could have anywhere between 50,000 to 100,000 fatalities — depending on the time of day and where the action struck — and hundreds of thousands of people injured.”
Some estimates are even higher. Data from Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear-weapons historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology, indicates that a 15-kiloton explosion (like the one in Hiroshima) would result in more than 225,000 fatalities and 610,000 injuries in New York City.
Under these circumstances, New York State would not have enough beds for the injured.
“New York state has 40,000 hospital beds, almost all of which are occupied all the time,” Redlener said.
He expressed concerns about the fate of emergency responders.
“Do we really intend to send National Guard soldiers or US troops into radioactive areas? “Will we have bus drivers go into the zone and take people out to safety?” He said. “Every strategic or tactical response is fraught with inadequacies.”
Big cities don’t have designated fallout shelters
In 1961, around the height of the Cold War, the US launched the Community Fallout Shelter Program, which designated safe places to hide after a nuclear attack in cities across the country. Most shelters were on the upper floors of high-rise buildings, so they were meant to protect people only from radiation and not the blast itself.
Cities were responsible for stocking those shelters with food and sanitation and medical supplies paid for by the federal government. By the time funding for the program ran out in the 1970s, New York City had designated 18,000 fallout shelters to protect up to 11 million people.
In 2017, New York City officials began removing the yellow signs that once marked these shelters to avoid the misconception that they were still active.
Redlener said there’s a reason the shelters no longer exist: Major cities like New York and San Francisco are in need of more affordable housing, making it difficult for city officials to justify reserving space for food and medical supplies.
“Can’t you imagine that a city official would keep buildings for fallout-safety shelters intact when real estate is scarce?” Redlener asked.
‘This is part of our 21st-century reality’
Redlener said many city authorities worry that even offering nuclear-explosion response plans might induce panic among residents.
“There’s fear among public officials that if they went out and publicly said, ‘This is what you need to know in the event of a nuclear attack,’ then many people would fear that the mayor knew something that the public did not,” he said.
But educating the public doesn’t have to be scary, Buddemeier said.
“The great news is, ‘Get in, stay in, and stay tuned,’ works, he added. “I kind of liken it to ‘Stop, drop, and roll.’ If your clothes catch on fire, that’s what you should do. It doesn’t make you afraid of fire, hopefully, but it does allow you the opportunity to take action to save your life.”
Both experts agreed that for a city to be prepared for a nuclear attack, it must acknowledge that such an attack is possible — even if the threat is remote.
“This is part of our 21st-century reality,” Redlener said. “I’ve apologized to my children and grandchildren for leaving the world in such a horrible mess, but it is what it is now.”