Correction to This Article
A May 3 article incorrectly said that 2,200 of the nation's 2 million firefighters, police officers and emergency medical personnel have been trained to respond to a nuclear attack. In fact, 22,000 first responders have been trained.

U.S. Called Unprepared For Nuclear Terrorism

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By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

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.

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.

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."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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