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Experts Offer Measures to Save Lives After Nuclear Explosion

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WASHINGTON -- Major cities and other communities in the United States can take a number of preparedness measures to drastically reduce the number fatalities and illnesses that would follow a nuclear strike, a leading nongovernmental organization declared on Tuesday.

The Rad Resilient City plan includes a seven-point checklist composed by an expert panel that communities can implement to better protect residents from radioactive fallout after an atomic blast. Adherence to the guidelines could save more than 100,000 lives, according to the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity, which led development of the report.

"Nuclear terrorism is a real threat in today's world but right now most Americans do not know what protective actions to take following a nuclear detonation," Monica Schoch-Spana, a senior associate at the center, said at the plan's rollout on Tuesday.

She rejected the assumption that lives cannot be saved after such a catastrophic event.

"We must reverse this fatalistic thinking," she said during the panel discussion.

The checklist is based on the latest federal guidance and other technical analysis. It lays out actions cities and regions can take, starting with obtaining broad community support for nuclear incident preparedness; conducting an ongoing public education campaign on the effects of an atomic detonation and how people can protect themselves; having all building owners or operators assess the level of fallout protection given by different types of structures; and building local capacity to deliver public warnings following an incident.

The plan also calls for establishing a rapid system for mapping and monitoring radioactive fallout; developing strategies and logistics for a large-scale, phased evacuation of a municipality; and then testing all the elements of the preparedness plan.

Each checklist item is accompanied by a handful of tasks community leaders can take to fully implement the recommended action.

Local governments and communities today are not well equipped to deliver preparedness knowledge before or after an incident, according to Schoch-Spana, a member of the Nuclear Resilience Expert Advisory Group that prepared the document.

"The bottom line is the only way for us to be prepared is to know what to do in advance," Tammy Taylor, head of the Nonproliferation Division at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and member of the advisory group, told the audience.

Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have long expressed a desire to obtain unconventional weapons such as an improvised nuclear device or a radiological "dirty" weapon, which would use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials.

There is also a state-level threat posed by rogue nations such as North Korea, which has an illicit nuclear weapons program and continues to pursue development of long-range missiles. Earlier this year, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Pyongyang could possess a missile capable of striking Alaska or the West Coast of the continental United States in the next five years (see GSN, Jan. 11).

President Obama identified containment of nuclear-weapon materials as a top national security goal shortly after taking office. Last year he convened a two-day summit in Washington with nearly 50 heads of state and dignitaries to discuss ways to secure the world's loose nuclear material.

Today there is enough fissile material in the world to fuel roughly 120,000 nuclear weapons, Tom Inglesby, chief executive officer and director of the Center for Biosecurity told the audience.

He credited the Obama administration for its efforts to lock down such materials but said "we need a plan if prevention efforts should fail to prevent an act of nuclear terrorism."

Speaking before the panel discussion, Brian Kamoie, National Security Council senior director for preparedness policy stressed that "there is no specific information or imminent threat about an [improvised nuclear device] attack."

However, "an educated public can help reduce and manage the significant impacts that may occur following such an event," he added.

Experts devised a phased implementation plan that breaks down the preparedness measures contained in the checklist into small steps and compiled tips on how to write an effective, post-detonation fallout warning message, according to Schoch-Spana

They also provided sample warning messages for public health officials to model theirs upon as well as answers to frequently asked questions about which areas in what kind of buildings provide the best shelter from radiation.

Schoch-Spana said implementation of the plan, especially its instructions on shelter, could have positive "spillover" effects in planning in for other disasters and create an "all-hazards framework." She did not provide specific examples of other catastrophes.

The checklist also could create momentum for communities to tackle other nuclear attack response and recovery issues, including increased demand for medical attention and sheltering mass numbers of displaced citizens, she said.

Claudia Albano, manager of neighborhood services for Oakland, Calif, said the checklist differed from other think-tank reports that she said often are "unrealistic when it comes to the scarce resources local governments have and the systems we have in place."

"We can't do things new, we have to kind of bank off what we have," said Albano, who served on the document's advisory group. Consequently, many proposals are not fully implemented or "sit on the shelf."

Albano said the checklist would help local governments take advantage of existing community assistance programs without requiring additional resources. She pledged to take the plan back to Oakland to include in neighborhood watch training and disseminate it to the city's Citizens Corps Council and organizations such as the Red Cross.

A number of private sector institutions will also receive the newly minted document, according to Joseph Donovan, senior vice president at real estate investment firm Beacon Capital Partners.

Donovan said that the Building Owners and Managers Association national preparedness committee, which he oversees, is updating its guidance and would include the checklist for its 16,500 members.

In addition, the Real Estate Roundtable's Homeland Security Taskforce and the Commercial Facilities Sector Coordinating Council, both of which Donovan co-chairs, will examine the action plan.

Inglesby said Tuesday's event marked the beginning of a months-long education campaign, adding that the plan had already been sent to the offices of mayors, governors, emergency management agencies, and public health and safety officials across the country.

Center for Biosecurity officials will present the checklist at a series of upcoming national professional gatherings, including the Big City Emergency Managers Meeting and the National Council on Radiation Protection, he said.

By Martin Matishak, Global Security Newswire