Report - Preventive Defense Project, Belfer Center

The Day After: Action in the 24 Hours Following a Nuclear Blast in an American City

On April 19, 2007, the Preventive Defense Project convened a workshop of leading federal government civilian and military officials, scientists, policy experts, and journalists in Washington, D.C. to address "The Day After: Action in the 24 Hours Following a Nuclear Blast in an American City."  The resulting report, co-authored with Michael M. May, former Director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, summarizes seven findings and recommendations based on the workshop.
      Through efforts like the Nunn-Lugar program, the U.S. government and many of the Day After Workshop participants, including us, have long sought to prevent nuclear weapons and fissile materials from falling into new and threatening hands, especially terrorists.  But we all know that these efforts have not reduced the probability to zero.  It is also a common refrain among policy thinkers concerned with the growing nuclear threat – again, ourselves included – to frame the issue of prevention in terms of a provocative question, "On the day after a nuclear weapon goes off in a U.S. city, what will we wish we had done to prevent it?"
      But our Preventive Defense "Day After Workshop" asked a different question:  "What will we actually do on the day after prevention fails?"  What will we want to do?  How can we prepare now to be able to do it?  We asked the distinguished participants in the Workshop to catapult themselves vividly and concretely into the aftermath of a nuclear detonation on a U.S. city. 
      The needed actions by government and the public on the Day After will fall into two categories: actions to recover from the first detonation, and actions to prevent a second detonation.  The Workshop addressed both types of action in as much detail, including technical detail, as possible.  The seven findings and recommendations cover the following topics:
      1.  Prevention of nuclear terrorism
      2.  Responsibilities of the federal government on the Day After
      3.  Fallout sheltering and evacuation
      4.  Cleanup, rebuilding, and long-term radiation exposure
      5.  The likelihood of a second, third, and further detonations in a terrorist
      6.  Retaliation and deterrence
      7.  Continuity of the American form of government.

      The Day After is a grim prospect to contemplate.  But policymakers have no choice, since the probability of nuclear terrorism cannot be calculated but is surely not zero.  The actions of public officials on the Day After will affect the lives of many thousands, the welfare of many millions, and the well-being and even cohesiveness of the nation and the world.  Carefully considered action by government on the Day After will also help the citizenry avoid overreaction and allow them to restore, through their Constitutional government, the American way of life that they have built over centuries.  Terrorists – even armed with nuclear weapons – should never be allowed to take that away.

Please see the pdf below for the full text of this article:

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Carter, Ashton B., Michael M. May and William J. Perry. “The Day After: Action in the 24 Hours Following a Nuclear Blast in an American City.” Preventive Defense Project, Belfer Center, May 31, 2007.

The Authors

Ash Carter