The government doesn’t have plans for treating people downwind from a nuclear attack for radiation exposure, a report released Thursday concludes.
The study by the Physicians for Social Responsibility also faults the Homeland Security Department for lacking communication plans to tell the public whether to evacuate or take shelter where they are after a nuclear blast.
A Homeland Security Department spokesman said the government has focused on preventing nuclear attacks and that the report “seems to lack a grasp of reality.”
The study looks at health risks downwind from a nuclear attack or dirty bomb — a mix of explosives with radioactive material — in New York City, Washington and Chicago. Though little could be done about tens of thousands of people who would die at the attack’s epicenter, thousands of others might be saved if they received fast medical treatment or effective evacuation guidance, said Dr. Ira Helfand, one of the report’s authors.
In one scenario — a nuclear blast in lower Manhattan — an estimated 52,000 people would be killed immediately and another 10,000 would receive lethal doses of radiation. But the fate of an estimated 200,000 people downwind from the blast — up to 30 miles away with a wind speed of 10 mph — depends on the government’s planning, Helfand said.
Those people “might live if we have a plan in place to evacuate or shelter them effectively,” Helfand said in an interview Wednesday. “But at this point, we don’t have a plan, and that’s fairly shocking, five years after 9/11.”
Under the nation’s plan for responding to major disasters, the Health and Human Services Department generally is responsible for dealing with federal medical programs. A department representative declined to comment on the report until it could be thoroughly reviewed.
Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said the government can track the radiation plume from a nuclear blast within an hour to direct medical care and other resources to those who would be at risk. The department also is grappling with how to communicate and advise potential nuclear victims in an attack’s immediate aftermath.
“However well-intentioned, this report seems to lack a grasp of reality,” Knocke 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.”