Press Release

PDP Hosts WMD Workshop on the Day After a Nuclear Attack

  • Jonathan Lachman
| Apr. 19, 2007

Washington, DC – On April 19, 2007, PDP Co-Directors Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry hosted the latest in a series of WMD-related workshops, entitled "The Day After: Action in the 24 Hours Following a Nuclear Blast in a U.S. City."  The off-the-record workshop, held at the Mayflower Hotel, focused on identifying and defining a critical set of actions to be taken now (or prepared now for action on the Day After) to help the U.S. and the international community at-large respond to, and recover from, a nuclear attack on a U.S. city.

* * *

First session:

In the first session, "Responding to the First Detonation: Immediate Effects," participants were asked to consider a scenario in which a 10-kiloton groundburst detonates in a major U.S. city, either with or without advance warning.  The discussion centered around the unique problems that such a nuclear event poses to government first responders tasked with minimizing casualties and restoring public order to the affected region.

All participants agreed that the survivors of a nuclear attack – the vast majority of whom will fall outside the area of immediate impact – will require guidance from the government as to whether to evacuate or shelter-in-place.  However, many participants argued that the government’s ability to provide such guidance in a timely manner may be compromised by either an inability to reliably predict the path of radioactive fallout in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear detonation, given variable meteorological conditions and uncertainties in obtaining an accurate yield determination; or inter-agency bottlenecks which may impede verifiable information streams. The consensus view was that if government authorities are only able to communicate one message in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear blast, they should advise the public to shelter-in-place and wait for further instructions from first-responders.  (Participants acknowledged, however, that in the event that multiple bombs are either threatened or detonated in multiple U.S. cities, it may be impossible to prevent a massive urban evacuation that could paralyze the U.S. interstate highway system.)

In order for the government to be able to communicate its message clearly and effectively to the public, participants emphasized the importance of having redundant communication channels in place.  Participants agreed that the primary modes of communication to the public will be via television, radio, and the internet, but encouraged the government to consider other modes of communicating with the public.  A few participants raised concerns that the source region electro-magnetic pulse (SREMP) from the blast could impair the ability of first responders to communicate with each other in the immediately affected area.  This prompted a number of participants to suggest that first responders will need portable communication devices that do not rely on cellular phone networks. 

Participants also advocated for pre-authorizing a select number of government officials to disseminate information to the general public.  A number of participants recalled that in past emergencies (e.g. 9/11, Katrina), many of the people who may have had the most authoritative information may not have been authorized by the government to speak, while many government officials who made public statements were among the least informed.  While there was some disagreement over whom should be designated as the government’s principal spokesperson, all participants agreed that the designated individual should already have the public’s trust before the blast.  This point led many to conclude that the president should therefore play a central role in communicating the government’s message.

Participants agreed that ramping up local emergency preparedness in every major U.S. municipality should be a priority, given that local first responders will bear the greatest burden of providing emergency aid in the first 24 hours after a nuclear blast.  However, they also believed that a coordinated federal response will be required in order to provide the scale necessary to deal with the magnitude of a nuclear attack.  Participants noted, for example, that there will be not enough local personnel in the affected area to treat the many burn victims from the blast.

* * *

Second session:

In the second session, "Responding to the First Detonation: Delayed Effects & Needed Response," participants were asked to consider some of the longer-term emergency response issues unique to a nuclear event, such as how to protect the public against the effects of downwind fallout and lasting contamination.  

Participants acknowledged the utility of having an accurate plume model in order to (1) determine which residents downwind should be evacuated from their homes; and (2) provide the data necessary to conduct the risk analyses that displaced residents could use when deciding whether to return to their homes in the near-to-intermediate future.  

Participants also underscored the importance of ensuring that first responders can not only operate but can also survive in a contaminated environment.  Participants recalled previous instances in which first responders were unable or unwilling to respond to an emergency because they were ill-equipped and/or lacked sufficient training.  They overwhelmingly agreed that providing first responders with the necessary education, training, and equipment to operate effectively in the hours and days after a nuclear blast is paramount, but they recognized that key benchmarks and standards have yet to be met in many of these areas.  A number of participants suggested expanding existing legal authorities and harnessing the resources of the private sector as means of increasing the scope of the government’s emergency response capabilities.

* * *

Third session:

In the third session, "Preventing a Second Detonation: Immediate Actions to Attribute Responsibility & Deter or Interdict Follow-on Attacks," participants considered a scenario in which the possibility of follow-on attacks is a clear and present danger.    

The first part of the discussion focused on the use of nuclear forensics as a means of attributing responsibility for a nuclear attack.  Participants from the scientific community vouched for the multi-use capabilities of nuclear forensics, but they conceded that immediate attribution will be crude and approximate, with detailed attribution and forensics only available after two weeks. Participants therefore concluded that expectations will have to be managed among government leaders who are demanding instant answers regarding the precise composition of the bomb and the likely government source.  However, a number of participants pointed out that valuable information can still be gleaned as early as an hour after the blast, such as whether the bomb’s composition is uranium-235 or plutonium, which can then be used to rule out certain suspected perpetrators.

On the question of deterrence, a majority of participants believed that the government’s capacity for nuclear attribution would not likely prevent terrorists from being able to detonate a second bomb, but they argued that it could still help to deter nation-states from transferring and/or failing to adopt sufficient measures to safeguard nuclear material if they knew that they could potentially be held responsible for their actions. 

Many participants urged the U.S. government to lobby nuclear states to contribute to an international database of stored nuclear nuclear isotope data in order to increase its attribution capabilities.  However, a number of participants questioned: (1) whether nuclear states would be willing to share classified information; (2) whether there are the necessary agreements in place to coordinate international forensics cooperation; (3) whether it would even be possible to trace the chain of attribution from the original government source to the ultimate terrorist agent; and (4) whether the U.S. government, even assuming it has a perfect nuclear fingerprint, has sufficient credibility to be believed on the world stage.  All agreed that even the best forensics capabilities are auxiliary to conventional intelligence-gathering and counterterrorist activities focused on penetrating and dismantling terrorist networks.

* * *

Fourth session:

The fourth session, "Preventing a Second Detonation: Actions to Restore Global Nuclear Security," considered the longer-term implications of a nuclear blast for international security and the prevailing international order.  Participants were encouraged to think about how governments might be able to take advantage of the rare opportunity afforded by a nuclear attack to enact more ambitious measures designed to restore the public’s confidence in the government’s ability to protect them from further harm.

At a bare minimum, all participants agreed that there would be a clear opportunity to pressure America’s international allies to secure their nuclear materials using such technologies as radio frequency identification (RFID) and to address fuel cycle issues.  On the domestic front, participants suggested that it might be easier for the Congress to agree to fund a more holistic inter-agency plan for addressing issues related to global nuclear terrorism.

A minority of participants, however, went much further, arguing that the U.S. ought to lobby for the complete abolishment of nuclear weapons, on the basis that its nuclear weapons cache would have thus been proven to be utterly powerless in protecting its citizens from a terrorist nuclear attack. 

Other participants were decidedly less optimistic about a post-nuclear international climate, questioning whether the nation-state system would remain intact.  They pointed to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Iran as three nations at serious risk of exiting the international order.  Under such a scenario, it was argued that the problem of loose nukes would be greatly magnified. 

Many participants also warned against underestimating the domestic political reaction to a nuclear attack on U.S. soil, suggesting that there will be significant pressure on the government to retaliate against the nation-state (e.g. Pakistan or North Korea) from where the nuclear material used to attack the U.S. originated. 

* * *

Fifth session:

The fifth and final session "Identifying Ten Lessons for Policy & Action" afforded each participant an opportunity to recommend the most pressing action(s) to be taken now (or prepared now for action on the Day After) to help the U.S. respond to, and recover from, a nuclear attack.  Among the policy recommendations that enjoyed the broadest participant support were proposals to:

o Develop a comprehensive general contingency plan for the Day

o Increase funding for local emergency preparedness and first-aid.

o Establish federal standards for first responders to a nuclear attack.

o Authorize pre-approved actions (e.g. an instant set of legal
   authorities) to expedite the government’s response in the event
   of a nuclear emergency.

o Submit a non-partisan report urging the Congress to exercise its
   oversight responsibilities to ensure the federal government is
   fulfilling its obligations to prepare the country for an emergency
   nuclear response.

o Increase nuclear detection capabilities.

o Improve nuclear consequence management.

o Develop credible plans for retaliatory action against nation-states (e.g. Pakistan, Iran, North Korea) that are likely to be responsible for producing the fissile material ultimately used in a terrorist
   nuclear attack.

 o Pressure nuclear nation-states to secure fissile material around the world.

o Aggressively pursue international agreements (e.g. with Russia) to halt the further production of nuclear material and address the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

o Engage America’s allies in increased nuclear prevention andinterdiction efforts.  

o Raise domestic public awareness about the threat of a nuclear attack by way of national political debate, however hesitant elected officials may be to discuss WMD issues in public.

o Focus on geopolitical challenges to restoring nuclear order after a nuclear attack.

* * *

About the workshop series:

The Day After Workshop was the sixth in a series of WMD-related activities of the Preventive Defense Project.  Other workshops and related publications and Congressional testimony have concerned Plan B for Iran, Improving WMD Intelligence, Updating the NPT Regime, Plan B for North Korea, and the U.S.-India Nuclear Deal.  These workshops are supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Richard Lounsbery Foundation and the Herbert S. Winokur Fund.

* * *

Conference participants:

The following individuals participated in the Day After Workshop:

General John Abizaid
    Former Commander, U.S. Central Command
Dr. David M. Abshire
    President, Center for the Study of the Presidency and President, Richard
    Lounsbery Foundation
Dr. Michael R. Anastasio
    Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory
Dr. Deana Arsenian
    Vice President, International Programs Coordination, Carnegie Corporation of
    New York
Ambassador Linton F. Brooks
    Former Administrator, National Nuclear Security Administration, U.S. Department
    of Energy
Dr. Matthew Bunn
    Senior Research Associate, STPP, Harvard University, Kennedy School of
Dr. Ashton B. Carter
    Co-Director, Preventive Defense Project, Harvard University, Kennedy School of
General James E. Cartwright, USMC
    Commander, U.S. Strategic Command
Mr. Charles B. Curtis
    President and Chief Operating Officer, Nuclear Threat Initiative
Mr. William Daitch
    Assistant Director, Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, National Technical Nuclear
    Forensics Center
Dr. Steve Fetter
    Dean, School of Public Policy, University of Maryland
Dr. Robert L. Gallucci
    Dean, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University
Dr. Richard L. Garwin
    IBM Fellow Emeritus, IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center
The Honorable Jane Lakes Harman
    Congresswoman, U.S. House of Representatives
Mr. Shane Harris
    Intelligence & Homeland Security Correspondent, The National Journal
Dr. John Harvey
    Director, Policy Planning Staff, National Nuclear Security Administration, U.S.
    Department of Energy
Mr. Spencer S. Hsu
    Homeland Security Correspondent, The Washington Post
The Honorable Fred C. Iklé
    Distinguished Scholar, Center for Strategic & International Studies
LTG Joseph R. Inge, USA
    Deputy Commander, U.S. Northern Command
Dr. Raymond Jeanloz
    Professor of Earth and Planetary Science and of Astronomy, University of
    California, Berkeley
Ms. Carol Kuntz
    Homeland Defense Chair, National Defense University, U.S. Department of
Dr. George Look
    Director, Strategic Planning & Outreach, International Security & Nonproliferation,
    U.S. Department of State
Dr. Vahid Majidi
    Assistant Director, Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Federal Bureau of
Dr. Michael M. May
    Professor (Research) Emeritus, Engineering-Economic Systems & Operations
    Research, CISAC, Stanford University
The Honorable John E. McLaughlin
    Senior Fellow, Merrill Center for Strategic Studies, Paul H. Nitze School of
    Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University
Dr. Robert A. Mikelskas
    Vice President, Center for Integrated Intelligence Systems, The MITRE
Dr. George Miller
    Director, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Dr. Gordon Oehler
    Former Director, Non-Proliferation Center, CIA and Deputy Director, WMD
VADM Eric T. Olson, USN
    Deputy Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command
Dr. William J. Perry
    Co-Director, Preventive Defense Project, Stanford University, Center for
    International Security & Cooperation
Mr. Daniel B. Poneman
    Principal, The Scowcroft Group
The Honorable Charles S. Robb
    Former Senator and Co-Chair, WMD Commission
Vice Admiral Roger T. Rufe, Jr. (USCG, Ret)
    Director, Office of Operations Coordination, U.S. Department of Homeland
Mr. David E. Sanger
    Chief Washington Correspondent, The New York Times
LTG John Sattler
    Director for Strategic Plans and Policy, J-5, Joint Staff
Mr. Leonard S. Spector
    Deputy Director (Washington, DC), Monterey Institute Center for Nonproliferation
Dr. James A. Tegnelia
    Director, Defense Threat Reduction Agency
General John H. Tilelli, Jr. (USA, Ret)
    Chairman and CEO, Cypress International
Mr. Peter F. Verga
    Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas'
    Security Affairs, U.S. Department of Defense
Mr. Michael G. Vickers
    Senior Vice President, Strategic Studies, Center for Strategic and Budgetary
Mr. Jon Wolfsthal
    Nonproliferation Fellow, International Security Program, Center for Strategic &
    International Studies
LTG John R. (Bob) Wood, USA
    Deputy Commander, U.S. Joint Forces Command

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:PDP Hosts WMD Workshop on the Day After a Nuclear Attack.” Press Release, April 19, 2007.

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