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Nuclear Threats Against the Homeland: Impact and Preparation

Although the threat of a nuclear attack or incident on U.S. soil is almost seven decades old, recent events renewed this concept over the past few months. From the rise in extremism across the globe, missile launches, rumors of detonations in North Korea, the ongoing conflict over Iran’s nuclear program, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the threat and concern of nuclear weapons continue to increase. Although security experts have downplayed the likelihood that the war in Ukraine could lead to nuclear escalation between the U.S. and Russia, Putin’s continued threats of using such weapons are concerning. The National Defense Strategy (October 27, 2022) emphasized the heightened threat posed by Russia, China, and other countries. The report admits that the scope and scale of homeland threats have profoundly changed, posing more dangerous challenges to U.S. safety and security. Much has occurred since the Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races in January 2022, where the parties stated: 

We underline our desire to work with all states to create a security environment more conducive to progress on disarmament with the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all. 

The proliferation of nuclear weapons and the materials to manufacture them certainly elevates the possibility of a nuclear weapon or modified device utilization as regional tensions and extremism rise. 

Nuclear Threats – Then and Now 

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the October 2022 White House National Security Strategy now lists China as a long-term threat and Russia, Iran, and North Korea as current, immediate threats in terms of nuclear power. Recent news from the Bulletin of the Atomic ScientistsBloomberg, and others have projected casualty rates for nuclear attacks on multiple cities and scenarios. Research entities across the spectrum have posted potential impacts of nuclear war and the relative likelihood of large-scale and regional attacks. Emergency managers, officials, and leaders now have an abundance of information and questions on what is in place and what the next steps should be: 

  • Does this threat warrant its own plan? 

  • Do we incorporate the plan into the existing framework? 

  • What training is needed? 

  • How do we incorporate that training? 

  • What equipment and facilities are needed? 

  • How do we manage this process? 

Considering all the information and questions surrounding the possibility of a nuclear strike, whether through conventional weapons or a modified device, it is important to understand the relative impact of these weapons today. The International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War published a report in August 2022 on “Nuclear Famine.” The authors outline a nuclear war’s immediate and devastating impact on climate and food production, with multiple years without full growing seasons and the resulting shortage of available calories worldwide. With their projections, the authors provide a graphical representation of the relative size and number of nuclear weapons from 1945, with the first deployment of weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to today. Their chart notes approximately 2,060,000 kilotons (2,060 megatons) of nuclear weapons available in 2022 compared to the 1.5 kilotons in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima and 15 kilotons in the weapon deployed in Nagasaki. The Federation of American Scientists lists the overall inventory at about 12,700 warheads, with 5,977 in the Russian arsenal, 5,428 in the U.S., 350 in China, and the remaining 945 spread between six other countries. 

The likelihood that a country will use one of the nearly 13,000 nuclear weapons varies significantly depending on the source and analyst(s) generating the statistics and reports. The Brookings Institute published the challenges of estimating the likelihood of a war based on various factors. For example, relying on traditional statistics and analysis is limited because nuclear weapons have only been used twice in anger. Projecting future results based on such an infrequent event is problematic, forcing analysis based on alternative models and interpretations. 

Dirty bombs are another possible scenario. For example, Russian claimed that Ukrainian forces planned to use one of these devices in a false flag operation against Russia. Britain, France, and the U.S. issued a joint statement denying the operation and noted that such use would be a pretext for conflict escalation. Although the emergency preparedness community uses the all-hazards approach for community planning, and individual community emergency preparedness plans may list terrorism as one of their top threats, the plan may not specifically address nuclear explosions. Therefore, there are a few planning tools specific to this event. 

Imagining a Nuclear Scenario – Planning Tools & Resources 

The Department of Homeland Security Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office maintains various tools and publications regarding nuclear and other incidents. These include a Health and Safety Planning Guide for Planners, Safety Officers, and Supervisors for Protecting Responders Following a Nuclear Detonation and Technical Capability Standards for Radiological Detection. The safety planning guide includes information on the stages of a nuclear detonation and what to expect, along with zoned responses, impacts on the body after exposure to radiation, rules of thumb, and considerations for self-protection for responders. This guide builds from the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which includes personal protective equipment, training, and other requirements, and the Incident Command System, allowing for systematic incorporation into existing plans. The second publication on detection provides technical specifications for the operations listed in the guide. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has information on radiation emergencies on its website to educate the public. However, nothing can prevent the attack, and it is too late to prepare once a nuclear explosion is imminent. The critical focus at that point is to seek immediate shelter and consider emergency evacuation in high-risk areas such as near nuclear power plants. National awareness campaigns use the slogan: “Get Inside, Stay Inside, Stay Tuned.” Communities should have multiple avenues of mass communication to alert the public to seek immediate shelter (e.g., weather sirens, digital billboards, and emergency alerts via text messaging, radio, and television broadcasting). Venues with large capacities (e.g., event halls, stadiums, hospitals, schools) should have established plans to shelter individuals inside for safety and prevent evacuation when possible. Any shelter is better than being outside and can help reduce the risk of exposure during the event. Communication is critical for ensuring that citizens understand the dangers of venturing outside before it is safe. 

How the war in Ukraine will end is unclear, but some analysts say it could have a devastating impact on a global scale. 

After a nuclear explosion and the immediate need to shelter in place, typical incident response activities should occur, such as establishing an incident command center or emergency operations center in a safe, sustainable location. In addition, decontamination capabilities (equipment, supplies, and personnel trained to use them) are a priority following a nuclear attack. Two guides illustrate considerations, planning factors, and available resources to design an effective nuclear detonation response plan and inform officials during an emergency – from nuclear fallout patterns to triaging exposed victims: 

Community leaders should understand the strengths and weaknesses of their communities’ mass casualty capabilities and formulate strategies. As with any all-hazards approach, partnerships are critical. Mass transportation may be necessary, and local emergency medical services resources may not be able to support that initiative. Using school buses to transport the walking wounded can alleviate this resource strain. Like natural disasters, utilities, internet, and other items may be lost and require evaluation. Alternate communication methods are vital, as the internet and other standard communication lines may be inoperable. Battery-powered and hand-cranked National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) radios apply in this instance. Additionally, text messaging may still work even if cell phones do not. 

After World War II and the resulting nuclear arms race, the federal government created a National Fallout Shelter Program that eventually dissolved once a nuclear attack was no longer a looming threat. Considering the extensive and powerful nuclear weapon arsenals, communities should reassess these shelters, which are either no longer in use or possibly repurposed. The Civil Defense Museum published the location of each identified fallout shelter, which emergency planners can use to locate fallout shelters. They could inspect the site for its viability, mark the area for the public to identify it easily as a shelter, then educate the community on protective measures. These shelters can also be multipurpose for natural disasters and do not have to be explicitly labeled for nuclear threats. In areas where these shelters currently serve alternative purposes, planners may need to seek partnerships to ensure these locations will be available during emergencies. 

According to a 2017 public health study, more than half of U.S. emergency medical workers have no training to treat radiation exposure victims. The same study indicated that a third of medical professionals would be unwilling to respond to a fallout zone and treat radiation victims. Intensifying these matters in the aftermath of a potential nuclear attack, radiation exposure treatments for burn victims would likely not be available in adequate quantities. Since radioactivity is not something readily identifiable through sight, taste, smell, or feeling, Geiger counters and pocket radiation cards are another consideration for emergency planning. Symptoms of radiation exposure vary based on exposure and can range from mild nausea and vomiting to death. Supplies of potassium iodide pills can help combat the effects of radiation exposure, utilizing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) frequently asked questions for guidance and dosage in the event of radiological emergencies. The FDA also provides Directions for Making Potassium Iodide Solution for Use During a Nuclear Emergency. When preparing, planners should consider what materials to print (including those traditionally accessed via the internet), which resources to stockpile, and where to store the items. 

Low-Probability, Yet High-Impact Threat 

The prospect of a nuclear war or attack on the U.S. is possible and emergency managers should account for this scenario in operational plans. Though many security experts understand nuclear effects to a certain degree, nuclear weapons can fundamentally be unpredictable. When analyzing and forecasting the impacts, though, there are too many variables. A recent study conducted by the Center for Nuclear Studies at Columbia University concluded that the U.S. is not prepared for the consequences of any nuclear disaster, whether deliberate or accidental. Also, most large-city emergency management websites do not indicate ways to respond to a radioactive catastrophe. 

The traditional all-hazards approach broadly covers different possibilities, but radiological attacks also have unique communication, response, and recovery challenges. Some geographic areas are more at-risk for this type of attack, and not every location needs to invest heavily in detection equipment and specific facilities. As noted previously, some areas already have shelters in place, but their feasibility may need assessment. As with any emergency, planners and managers need to understand the potential impacts, community needs, and priorities in the different stages of the incident. 

With preparedness and response guides built on NIMS and Incident Command System (ICS), managers can easily incorporate this into existing plans. Managers can then decide how to implement training and planning activities into their existing rotations. The world has seen the proliferation of nuclear weapons over the past two decades. However, the risk presented by these weapons has reemerged, with Russian president Putin warning to use them against Ukraine. Although the likelihood of an attack in the U.S. is much more remote than other hazards emergency managers and first responders face, the potential impact is catastrophic and deserves consideration. 

Tanya Scherr
Tanya M. Scherr

Tanya Scherr holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration with a Healthcare and Emergency Preparedness focus. She is an associate professor in Healthcare Administration for the University of Arizona – Global Campus and has over 28 years’ healthcare experience. Along with being a Certified Fraud Examiner since 2011, she is also a former firefighter-EMT, previously licensed in several states, as well as holding national certification. Dr. Scherr has held several executive and board of director positions for community non-profits that focus on women’s equality, domestic violence, and sexual assault.

Daniel Scherr
Daniel Scherr

Daniel Scherr holds a Ph.D. in Public Policy Administration with a terrorism, mediation, and peace focus. He is an assistant professor in Criminal Justice at the University of Tennessee Southern and program coordinator for the Cybersecurity Program. In addition, he is a Certified Fraud Examiner and Army veteran with two decades of experience in homeland security and operation.

Richard Schoeberl

Richard Schoeberl, Ph.D., has over 30 years of law enforcement experience, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He has served in a variety of positions throughout his career, ranging from a supervisory special agent at the FBI’s headquarters in Washington, DC, to unit chief of the International Terrorism Operations Section at the NCTC’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Before these organizations, he worked as a special agent investigating violent crime, human trafficking, international terrorism, and organized crime. He was also assigned numerous collateral duties during his FBI tour – including as a certified instructor and member of the agency’s SWAT program. In addition to the FBI and NCTC, he is an author and has served as a media contributor for Fox News, CNN, PBS, NPR, Al-Jazeera Television, Al Arabiva Television, Al Hurra, and Sky News in Europe. Additionally, he has authored numerous scholarly articles, serves as a peer mentor with the Police Executive Research Forum, is currently a professor of Criminology and Homeland Security at the University of Tennessee-Southern, and works with Hope for Justice – a global nonprofit combatting human trafficking.

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