Surviving a Nuclear Attack – Irving Redlener

Irving Redlener gives a short lecture on the possibility of a terrorist nuclear attack. Splitting up the nucear age into two chapters, Redlener describes the first chapter (between 1941-1992) as one of paranoia and delusion, exhibited by impractical evacuation plans. The only thing that prevented the United States and the U.S.S.R. from bombing the other was the assurance of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD. A simple miscalculation or misreading of radar signals could leave result in a state launching its missiles and another to retaliate. The next chapter, which takes place from 1991 to the present, is characterized by the uncertainty of nuclear terrorism. It is here that Redlener’s main points are made clear, that the risk of a nuclear attack is still plausible and the United States is nowhere near prepared enough to respond to a such an event.. Redlener also offers a step-by-step process for how to survive a nuclear attack.

Our Notes

The nuclear age began during WWII with the Manhattan Project in an attempt to harness the power of the atom to end the seemingly endless war.

All countries that had nukes at this time were part of what was called the “nuclear club”. The world during this time had 65,000 warheads; 95 percent of those were held by the U.S.S.R. and America.

By 1985, prior to the Soviet split, both the U.S.S.R. and the America began to disarm their warheads down to 21,000.

Redlener describes the official number of disarmed bombs as problematic because these weapons can easily be “re-commissioned”. Since 1985, two members have also been added to the nuclear club, Pakistan and North Korea.

Redlener characterizes this period between 1949 -1991 as ultimately about a nuclear threat story; a “nation vs. nation fragile standoff” between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.

Since MAD ensured that neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R. would survive a nuclear exchange, a misreading of the radar could be mistaken for a nuclear attack and thus lead to the destruction of the world. He summarizes this first chapter of nuclear threat as essentially being one of delusion and paranoia.

Redlener criticizes the response planning conducted by the United States during the Cold War and includes the following:

  • Prioritizing strategic objectives over casualty reduction of U.S. citizens.
  • Unrealistic evacuation planning of U.S. cities.
  • Weak public education on how to respond to a nuclear attack.

This disconnect from reality experienced in the Cold War has never been reconciled.

In Chapter 2, the possibility of an all-out war has diminished and has been replaced by the threat of a single attack of nuclear terrorism.  Redlener outlines four trends that have led to this increased probability of a nuclear terrorist attack:

  1. Global nuclear weapons stockpiles are not uniformly secure and fissionable material is relatively available through theft or the black market.
  2. The know-how needed to make a nuclear bomb is fairly accessible through media sources like books and through the internet
  3. Since terrorists are stateless, MAD becomes irrelevant and terrorists cannot be effectively deterred from using nuclear weapons.
  4. High value U.S. targets are accessible, soft, and plentiful.

While the probability of an all-out war has greatly diminished, local flashpoints in the Middle East, such as Pakistan, could escalate into a nuclear conflict.

To overcome this dilemma, Redlener suggests education, better inspection of shipping cargo containers, and better screening.

Redlener offers the following advice for anyone caught near a nuclear blast:

  • Avoid looking at the blast. Staring at the blast could blind you permanently.
  • If you are within a 2 mile radius, you have about 10 to 20 minutes to get a mile away from the blast area before nuclear fallout begins to rain from the mushroom cloud.
  • Within 24 hours, nuclear fallout will follow the prevailing winds.
  • Go either perpendicular to the wind or downwind to avoid the lethal amounts of radiation that will follow it.
  • If you are in the direct fallout zone and you’re looking for shelter, you either have to be above 9 stories, or as deep underground as possible.
  • If you are in the fallout zone, you must find shelter and wait until help comes.

Redlener argues that if the above procedures are taken, it could mean the difference between 250,000 to 500,000 and 750,000 to one million casualties

Redlener recommends that the U.S. implements stronger security measures for border security such as inspecting more ship cargo containers as well as developing  better emergency response measures for high value cities in the United States through education.

Our Response

While certainly educational, Irving Redlener’s lecture creates a disconnect that weakens his argument. Ultimately what he is trying to explain is how to survive a nuclear blast. But he also states that the U.S.’s security measures and prevention policies against a terrorist nuclear threat is currently far too weak and needs to be strengthened. If Redlener’s argument suffers from anything, it’s the divergence between his two policy prescriptions. It is unclear whether the U.S. should focus on border security or educating the public as to how to respond to a nuclear attack. While both measures would be ideal, Redlener arguments are not focused enough to explain each point sufficiently. Essentially, a lack of structure in his presentation confuses the two points and detracts from his main argument. If we assume that educating the populace and preparing cities in the event of an attack is a primary point, it is something he never really goes into. Exactly how we should prepare multiple cities and educate the masses is never explicitly stated; he just touches the surface and moves on.

The practicality of Redlener’s policies is also in question. As Redlener asserts, only 5-7% of shipping cargo containers are checked throughout the entire year but how practical would it be to check even a third of the total amount that comes into the U.S.? Considering the sheer volume of shipping containers that enter the U.S. every day, checking them all is a logistical nightmare and would have serious consequence for commerce and trade.

Some of the data Redlener uses seems to lack context. For example, he explains how 84 of 132 suitcase bombs from the KGB were missing in 1997. This was nearly a decade before Redlener’s lecture and deserves further explanation on what exactly has occurred to the suitcase bombs since then. Are they still missing or have they been located?

Even though a nuclear attack is possible, it may not be as likely as an event as other disasters. Given the relative frequency of natural disasters, an emergency response system should prioritize natural disasters over a nuclear terrorist attack. Past events like the Haiti earthquake and the floods in Pakistan, as well as Katrina only serve as an example of the frequency of such events.  Whereas natural events like an earthquake or flood occur every few years if not more, we have yet to see any an actual terrorist nuclear attack. There is no doubt that a nuclear attack on U.S. soil would be the most devastating thing to happen in America’s history. However, the lack of a nuclear attack leads us to believe that resources in federal emergency response planning are better spent towards preparing for environmental disasters. Since a scarcity of funds and time limits any policy initiative, hard choices must be made to build the most beneficial disaster response systems.

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