When asked during the campaign debates to name the gravest danger facing the United States, President Bush and challenger Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) gave the same answer: a nuclear device in the hands of terrorists.
But more than 3 1/2 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. government has failed to adequately prepare first responders and the public for a nuclear strike, according to emergency preparedness and nuclear experts and federal reports.
Although hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved by rapidly evacuating people downwind of a radiation cloud, officials have trained only small numbers of first responders to prepare for such an event, according to public health specialists and government documents. And the information given to the public is flawed and incomplete, many experts agree.
"The United States is, at the moment, not well prepared to manage an [emergency] evacuation of this sort in the relevant time frame," said Richard Falkenrath, former deputy homeland security adviser and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The federal government currently lacks the ability to [rapidly] generate and broadcast specific, geographically tailored evacuation instructions" across the country, he said.
A chilling scenario
Security experts consider a terrorist nuclear strike highly unlikely because of the difficulty in obtaining fissionable material and constructing a bomb. But it is a conceivable scenario, especially in light of the lax security at many former Soviet nuclear facilities and the knowledge of atomic scientists in such places as Pakistan.
Two closely held government reports obtained by The Washington Post — one by the White House's Homeland Security Council, the other by the Energy Department — describe in chilling detail the effects of a nuclear detonation, using the scenario of a strike on Washington. They make clear the need for split-second execution by top officials of the Department of Homeland Security if downwind communities dozens of miles away are to be saved — a level of performance that some experts say is well beyond officials' ability now.
U.S. officials say they are only in the first stages of planning ways to communicate with endangered downwind communities, via radio, television or cell phones.
Feds dispensing bad advice?
Members of the public who seek information from Homeland Security's Web site, Ready.gov, may not be getting the best advice, experts said.
Take, for example, a Ready.gov graphic showing that someone a city block from a nuclear blast could save his or her life by walking around the corner. The text reads, "Consider if you can get out of the area." Nuclear specialists say that advice is unhelpful because such a blast can destroy everything within a radius of as much as three-quarters of a mile.
"Ready.gov treats a nuclear weapon in this case as if it were a big truck bomb, which it's not," said Ivan Oelrich, a physicist who studies nuclear weapons for the nonprofit Federation of American Scientists. "There's no information in Ready.gov that would help your chances" of surviving a nuclear blast or the resulting mushroom cloud, he said.
Homeland Security officials acknowledge they have lots of work ahead to prepare for a nuclear strike — a task they point out is extraordinarily difficult — but say they have made progress.
"A lot of good work's been done, and a lot of federal resources are poised to respond," said Gil Jamieson, who helps run the department's programs to unify national, state and local emergency response efforts. "Can more work be done? Absolutely."
Department officials also say they have made strides in the monumental task of establishing standard protocols and plans among federal agencies, and with state and local authorities, on how to prepare for and respond to different types of terrorist attacks.
Homeland Security officials point with pride to the nuclear response training given to 2,200 first responders. But domestic defense experts point out there are 2 million such firefighters, police officers and emergency medical personnel nationwide.
More of them need crucial training in the dangers of radiation, how to limit their own exposure to it, how to triage victims and how to decontaminate them, they say. Many experts believe the government needs to train responders in these techniques and, more fundamentally, decide what their jobs would be in a nuclear attack.
The protocol problem
A 2003 report by the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), designated "For Official Use Only," said the government lacks rules and standards for sending first responders into radiated areas to save people or warn them of approaching fallout. This would include standards for radiation exposure for firefighters and how to decide where to deploy responders.
The prospect of a nuclear strike "requires a fundamental shift in radiological protection policy for members of the public and emergency responders," the report added. Officials said work in these areas has barely begun.
In detailing the consequences of a 10-kiloton bomb attack on Washington, the NNSA document, and another prepared in July 2004 by the Homeland Security Council (HSC), used different wind projections and assumptions about the government's success in evacuating residents.
The HSC document, also stamped "For Official Use Only," shows a radioactive plume heading east over Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, killing 99,000 to 190,000 people. The NNSA report describes a cloud moving northeast over Prince George's and Howard counties, and, assuming less success in evacuation, estimates 300,000 deaths.
A blast from a 10-kiloton weapon would destroy everything within a half-mile, the reports say, and cause severe damage for miles beyond. Many people would suffer "flash blindness" from the explosion.
First responders would be unlikely to enter the blast zone but would establish care centers upwind to help victims who escape, the reports say. "Triage will be a major issue," the HSC report said, noting that because of the huge numbers of victims, responders will have to turn away people too sick from radiation to survive.
In the end, years of cleanup of 3,000 to 5,000 square miles would be needed, the reports say. They also raise the possibility of forever abandoning many radiated neighborhoods. An atomic strike on this country "would forever change the American psyche, its politics and worldview," according to the White House report.
The government also has failed to communicate well with the public about nuclear dangers, terrorism experts said.
In late 2003, months after the debut of Homeland Security's Ready.gov Web site, Rand Corp. released a detailed study advising individuals on responding to various attack scenarios — but with starkly different recommendations.
Ready.gov gave almost no information on which to base a hide-or-flee decision, beyond advice such as to "Quickly assess the situation" after a nuclear blast. In general, it advised going inside, underground if possible, and fleeing by car rather than on foot.
Rand, which in the 1950s was an architect of U.S. nuclear doctrine, said going indoors "would provide little protection in a nuclear attack." It said Ready.gov's suggestion that people in the blast zone head underground after a blast is "misleading" because few people would have time to take that step.
Ready.gov made no mention of the critical factor of wind. But Rand advised that if wind is carrying smoke and the mushroom cloud toward people, they should immediately head perpendicular to it, on foot, for at least a few miles, to get out of the plume's path. Driving would be futile because of impassable roads, Rand said.
"Guidance from Ready.gov fails to indicate the time urgency involved," said Lynn E. Davis, a former undersecretary of state for arms control who was the Rand study's lead author. "We must act in a matter of minutes to survive."
Homeland Security officials said that some of the criticisms of Ready.gov are valid, and that they might change its wording in some places. But they said several experts they consulted believe miles-high winds could carry radiation in a different direction from wind on the ground.
"We decided [advice to flee crosswind] was not necessarily the best guidance for the American people," said Lara Shane, a Homeland Security spokeswoman who runs Ready.gov.
Department officials said their strategy is not for people themselves to decide what to do, but for them to listen for officials' advice over radio or television. Some emergency response experts, however, pointed out many radio and TV stations would be off the air.
"The threat information our leaders have given post-9/11 has often been disorganized, not confidence-inspiring," added Irwin Redlener, director of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness. "It's perilous to have a system solely dependent on central leadership to save lives."
Retired Gen. Dennis Reimer, a former Army chief of staff who is now the director of the Oklahoma-based National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism, said he prefers Rand's specificity. "The American people can handle that," he said. "It's like the Red Cross's lifesaving tips," he said. "Most of us aren't doctors, but we can help save lives."
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.