Committee on Medical Preparedness for a Nuclear Event (2009)


David Shiga’s article “Is your city prepared for a home-made nuke?”, recently published in the New Scientist is based on the Committee on Medical Preparedness for a Nuclear Event, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies assessment of “technologies and therapies” available in the event of a terrorist-inspired nuke attack. In its report, the Committee (p.ix) specifically examines “detonation of a compact and portable nuclear device by a small group of terrorists is a potential threat.Such an improvised nuclear device (IND) could be small enough to transport in a vehicle and could produce an explosion equal in yield to 10 kilotons of TNT.”

The specific details of such an attack are actively reported on page 1:

…these acute casualties would be the immediate effects of an IND detonation caused by blast overpressure and winds, thermal radiation, and prompt nuclear radiation. Another source of casualties—if the IND was detonated at or near ground level—would be the fallout (i.e., radioactive particles) that would be deposited on the ground for many miles downwind of the detonation point. The heaviest and therefore most dangerous particles of fallout would be on the ground for nearly 10 miles downwind within minutes. The number of casualties from this secondary source could also be of great magnitude. However, the count could be reduced substantially if individuals swiftly took appropriate steps to protect themselves.

The Committee continues…

Of greatest concern is that, beyond all of the immediate deaths, the large number of injured from an IND detonation would be overwhelming for local emergency response and health care systems to rescue, evacuate, and treat, even assuming that these systems and their personnel were not themselves incapacitated by the initial impact of the explosion.

Note the Committee (p.5) addressed the secrecy aspect of IND-related information; the release of intelligence and security-related info is critical to local civil defense planning, community awareness of risk and survivability, interagency cooperation and resource sharing. To wit, the Committee observes:

Because official estimates of the likelihood of a successful attack on the United States by terrorists using an IND are not public information, this question was not addressed at the workshop. The scope of the workshop was limited to medical public health preparedness if such an event were to occur. Thus the workshop did not address the priority that emergency preparedness planners should give to responding to the threat of an IND or how resources should be allocated among different threats.

The Committee report can be read online at the National Academies Press.

As an aside, it would be an interesting thesis or doctoral project to compare the Committee’s work on risk communication and civil preparedness with many of the documents posted here at Atomic History.