- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2007

We’re not ready for the proverbial Big One: The nation is ill-prepared for a nuclear attack, according to a study released yesterday that offers both nightmare scenarios and sensible interventions.

“We want to encourage people to pay attention to this, because it’s not all the end of the world,” said Cham Dallas, director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Mass Destruction Defense, a facility funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “There are actually steps that one can take to save lives. But we’re running out of time.”

In a detailed attack simulation that took three years to complete, Mr. Dallas projected the effects of small- and large-scale nuclear attacks on New York, Chicago, the District and Atlanta — all “potentially high-risk cities.” Details are predictably disturbing — overloaded hospitals, chaos and “paranoia, social isolation, demoralization,” the study noted.

A 20-kiloton detonation would leave debris “tens of feet thick in downtown areas.” Roughly half the population would be killed, mainly from collapsing buildings. Most survivors in downtown areas would be exposed to fatal radiation. A 550-kiloton explosion would cause buildings to spontaneously combust, with mass fires four miles in all directions. In the District, 2.6 million people would be affected by fallout, heat and destructive blast. The figure is 6 million in New York.

Contributing researcher William Bell said a 20-kiloton weapon — similar to what fell on Hiroshima in World War II — could be manufactured by terrorists and such emerging nuclear countries as North Korea and Iran. A 550-kiloton weapon, once common in the Soviet Union’s arsenal, was the device “most likely to be stolen by terrorists.”

As the likelihood of an attack increases, so should our preparations, Mr. Dallas said. He is calling for a “vigorous, creative and accelerated” response from federal agencies, the military, academic institutions and local responders — and will take his findings before the United Nations on April 19.

Significantly, the study found that hospitals, medical records and resources are concentrated in the area most likely to be destroyed in all four cities. Specialized facilities to treat burn victims are lacking; the nationwide hospital system has about 1,500 burn beds. It’s grim for downtown areas, Mr. Dallas acknowledged. But people aren’t helpless.

“There actually is quite a bit that we can do. In certain areas, it may be possible to turn the death rate from 90 percent in some burn populations to probably 20 or 30 percent — and those are very big differences — simply by being prepared well in advance,” he said.

Mr. Dallas wants authorities to tell the public what to do in a nuclear attack. For example, knowing to “flee perpendicular to the wind,” as little as one to five miles could be a lifesaver. He also recommends hospitals outside the blast zone be prepared to cope with a surge of casualties and that nonmedical personnel be taught to treat second-degree burns and care for wounds.

“Under the current system and in these extraordinary conditions, they’re going to be able to treat 100 people well and not treat 99,900 people,” he said. “So we’ve got to change those gears.”

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