Is Your City Prepared for a Home-Made Nuke?

As US president Barack Obama visits Moscow this week to discuss nuclear arms reduction with his Russian opposite number Dmitry Medvedev, a different nuclear threat is preoccupying emergency planners back home.

A panel of medical experts has just released its assessmentof the technologies and therapies that could be rolled out if a home-made nuclear bomb was ever detonated in the heart of an American city.

A device of this kind — now judged by Obama to pose “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security” — would kill hundreds of thousands of people. But as catastrophic as such an attack would be, it would not level an entire city, and a timely response could save many lives. Recent advances in techniques for mapping the path of radioactive fallout after an attack, combined with novel therapies for treating radiation victims, will improve survival chances, the report says.

“Clearly there would be loss of life, but it’s not hopeless,” says Georges Benjamin, head of the panel of doctors and public health officials that was convened by the National Academy of Sciences to assess the nation’s level of preparedness for such an attack. “We feel that there are things that one can do to mitigate it.”

So what would a city need to do? The panel explored the consequences of a nuclear explosion packing a punch equivalent to 10,000 tonnes of TNT. That’s tiny compared with the thermonuclear weapons deployed by the US and Russia — and smaller even than the 15-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 — but plausible for an improvised device.

The blast wave would destroy buildings and kill almost everyone within 1 kilometer (see map), so the panel focused its attention on people outside this zone, for whom the main danger would come from radioactive fallout. “That’s a place where you could get big gains if you plan right,” says panel member Fred Mettler of the New Mexico Veterans Administration Health Center in Albuquerque.

Highly radioactive rubble and dust thrown up by the explosion would . . . (continue reading)

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