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After the Blast



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I’ve already commented on the recent proposal by Ashton Carter, Michael May, and William Perry to institute Cold-War-style civil defense plans. There is much more to say about this unjustly neglected article: “The Day After: Action Following a Nuclear Blast in a U.S. City.” First let me present some highlights.

After noting the increased probability that terrorists will acquire nuclear weapons, Carter, May, and Perry list the key challenges that will follow on a blast: emergency response, evacuation, sheltering, immediate radiation effects, follow-on threats, attribution, retaliation, and cleanup. The authors have something interesting and (to me) surprising to say about every one of these issues.

Among the most original and sobering themes in the article is the matter of “follow-on threats.” Some excerpts:

…there is no reason to believe that “loose nukes” would come one at a time. Wherever terrorists got one weapon, they might have obtained several. Setting off a first bomb with no warning would still permit the terrorists to claim that more detonations were to come and to sow widespread panic, a likely tactic of terrorism, even if they had only obtained a single nuclear weapon.

…whether to panic the population on the basis of a possible hoax, whether to negotiate with the terrorists on the basis of their demands, and whether to believe that the terrorists had multiple bombs. All these dilemmas are likely on the day after regardless of a warning, as responders will have to assume they are facing a campaign of terror and not a single detonation.

If San Francisco is hit, for example, the U.S. government will be forced to conclude that Washington could be next and will have to decide whether and to what extent to relocate the government. For the same reason, residents of other cities may understandably want to evacuate their city.


The internet is the subject of a striking tidbit in this piece. Carter, May, and Perry claim, to my surprise, that “much of the telecommunications, internet, and mass media in the affected city will survive.” They actually recommend mass e-mailings and text messages to keep citizens abreast of the situation. So keep an eye out for those post-nuclear e-mails from Uncle Sam. They’re likely to update you on yet another one of Carter, May and Perry’s recommendation: “rapid plume-prediction capability” from the National Weather Service.

Another theme here is radiation-exposure trade-offs:

A sensible approach to response, recovery, rebuilding, and decontamination after a nuclear detonation will require emergency responders and some citizens in the affected area to accept a greater exposure to radiation than is permitted by normal day-to-day occupational guidelines….

Emergency responders, health workers, and troops need to understand these trade-offs in order to accept the exposure that will be necessary for them to carry out their life-saving tasks. Citizens willing to accept added exposure will be able to move back to the fallout region and resume normal life more quickly and cheaply than those who are not.

Carter, May, and Perry claim that the physical survival of all three branches of government has already been safeguarded “beyond doubt, although its mechanisms are necessarily secret.” So they concentrate on measures designed to prevent the permanent replacement of constitutional government by some form of martial law:

…a council of the president, vice president, speaker of the House, and majority leader of the Senate with the chief justice of the Supreme Court as observer could be specified as a consultative body to determine important aspects of the government’s response that touch law and the Constitution without in any way impeding existing and long-established authorities of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. The resulting framework should be effective against terrorists and also be fair and seen as fair in the United States and throughout the world. Second, contingency plans should stipulate that extraordinary measures taken to respond to a nuclear attack, even if taken through due constitutional and balance of powers mechanisms, are temporary, have a specified “sunset” date, and will be reviewed when the campaign of terror subsides or ends.

To my way of thinking, the section on “Retaliation and Deterrence” is by far the most troubling and problematic part of this article. I will comment on that section in another post.



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