The Reagan administration, which five years ago proposed massive evacuations from cities in the event of nuclear attack, is considering a revised plan that would shelter state and local officials while encouraging the rest of the population to rely on "self-help."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has drafted a $1.5 billion plan to build 600 bomb shelters for local officials between 1988 and 1992, according to internal FEMA documents. The proposal is being reviewed by other agencies, including the Defense Department and Office of Management and Budget, FEMA officials said.
The shelters would enable local governments to manage "the trans-attack period" and restore "post-attack government and society," a FEMA document said. Eventually, 3,400 shelters would be built, at unspecified cost.
The shelters would also protect land records so that nuclear war survivors can "retain and demonstrate ownership" of property that is not destroyed, Samuel W. Speck, associate FEMA director, said in a telephone interview yesterday.
At the same time, "the program recognizes the need for citizens to assume greater responsibility for their survival protection," the FEMA proposal states. Referring to the millions of civil defense volunteers in the 1950s, the plan calls for dissemination of 3.8 million low-cost radiation detectors and "instructional materials adaptable for use by families, schools, churches" and others.
States and local communities that refuse to prepare for nuclear attack in this way could lose federal funds for other emergencies, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, according to FEMA Director Julius W. Becton Jr.
Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), who made some documents available to The Washington Post, wrote in a May 8 letter to Becton that the FEMA plan "appears similar to the Soviet civil defense system that protects its government and [Communist] party elite." Proxmire said the plan resembles the civil defense program of the 1950s, which "was considered by many to be ridiculously unrealistic." Evacuation plans released five years ago were widely ridiculed as unrealistic and potentially chaotic.
Speck said the purpose of the bomb shelters is not to protect an elite, but to enable government to assist people during a crisis.
"We're not talking about bunkering in to save your skin," he said. "We're talking about whether government is going to be able to perform the most basic function government has to perform in peacetime as well as wartime, which is to protect, first, lives and, second, property.
"Federal, state and local officials are just beginning to recognize the interdependence of all levels and branches of government in sustaining a viable democratic society after a nuclear attack," the FEMA proposal said.
The administration tried once before to revive the nation's civil defense program, which has languished since the 1950s when many planners concluded that basement shelters cannot protect people against nuclear bombs and radioactive fallout. In 1982, after President Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 26, the administration failed to win approval for a $4.2 billion, seven-year program to evacuate large populations from cities such as Alexandria to more rural areas such as in West Virginia during a nuclear attack.
Critics -- described in the new FEMA plan as "a vocal and articulate minority" -- derided the program as more likely to cause traffic jams than save lives. They said the administration underestimated the devastating effects of nuclear war and overestimated people's ability to survive.
"It's my opinion, and the opinion of the governor of the state, that there's no defense against a major nuclear attack," Collette Blummeister, Wisconsin's director of emergency government, said yesterday.
Administration officials disagreed, but said defeat of the 1982 plan and the unwillingness of some states to emphasize nuclear defense has had "sobering" consequences, as one official put it.
"Conceivably, the United States today might not survive as a political and social entity after a major nuclear exchange," FEMA's proposal states.
As a result, Speck said, and in response to direction from the House and Senate Armed Services committees, the administration is drafting a new plan. He said the details of the proposal remain "in flux," but that the twin goals of local government survival and self-help for everyone else, are likely to underlie the plan.
"The new emphasis on volunteers and self-help should result in greater citizen participation and, ultimately, more lives saved," the proposal states, without specifying what self-help measures might be effective.
The new plan repeatedly refers to "post-attack restoration." Speck said FEMA recognizes that, with or without civil defense, "you are still going to lose millions of people, which will be a totally horrible situation," but that government has an obligation to save as many lives as possible.
He also said civil defense will become more viable if the nation builds military defenses against nuclear missiles, as envisioned in Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" program.
Several state civil defense directors, primarily concerned in recent years with natural emergencies and other hazards, question FEMA's new emphasis on nuclear attack. But the FEMA proposal stresses that state and local governments "must participate fully in civil defense attack preparedness" in order to receive funds under the Civil Defense Act.