Thursday, February 12, 2009

Our Negligent Civil Defense and Ideas for Improvement

According to wikipedia:

Since its creation by President George W. Bush after the September 11, 2001 attacks, United States Civil Defense has been concentrated within the cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Not surprisingly civil defense is now handled by the Department of Homeland Security.

Let's look at the top five priorities for the new Secretary of Homeland Security:

Homeland Security Secretary Asks—Here Are Answers!
by James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.
January 26, 2009

On day one, new Secretary for Homeland Security Janet Napolitano issued a directive requiring her staff to report to her by the end of the month on five top issues. The directive covered:

  • State and local intelligence sharing (law enforcement's ability to "connect the dots" in looking for terrorist threats);
  • State, local, and tribal integration (ensuring governance at all levels works together);
  • Transportation security (assessing what is being done to safeguard air, surface, and maritime transportation);
  • Risk analysis (determining the most efficacious means to reduce threats and vulnerabilities); and
  • Critical infrastructure protection (reducing the danger terrorists might destroy or degrade important assets from bridges to computer networks).

The secretary wants answers by January 28.

Well that seems like a typically bureaucratic list and certainly each of these issues is worthy of attention but isn't something obvious missing?

This "obvious item" hasn't been spotted for at least thirty years in US Civil Defense policy: namely, helping the general public thoroughly prepare. Admittedly for relatively minor disasters like floods, hurricanes, etc, the government provides adequate information to the general public.

But they don't even come close for WMD attacks, especially nuclear attacks.

In this post I want to focus on nuclear attacks from terrorism or war. I plan to deal with an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) nuclear attack in a future post.

I think a nuclear attack on the American homeland is nearly inevitable as nuclear weapon technology proliferates broadly, say Iran and another Muslim state or two. Or perhaps Pakistan's nuclear weapons and technology falls under fundamentalist control. Even if nuclear weapons proliferate only to Iran, their leadership might be crazy enough to attempt nuclear attacks against the US via terrorist proxies. Proliferation enables our enemies to use nuclear terrorism with plausible deniability and there is the disturbing possibility that a major nation might attack us covertly to gain advantage while diverting blame onto terrorists or a rogue state.

This alleged statement of a high-level retired Chinese General should not be ignored. I wouldn't be too surprised if some Chinese leaders have long-term genocidal, colonization plans to relieve their population pressure and increase their power and glory.

Hopefully the government has thoroughly dispersed a variety of our intelligence and national security infrastructure because otherwise an wily enemy could smuggle several tactical and strategic nuclear warheads through our porous borders and detonate them simultaneously at critical facilities like Homeland Security, the FBI, the Pentagon, CIA headquarters, Ft. Meade (NSA) as well as our major cities, military bases and other important targets. I'm sure most of our major national security facilities have at least some hardened bunkers but the loss of a significant fraction of our national security manpower and intelligentsia would be devastating. I suspect that a modest-sized group of ideologically committed Muslim terrorists backed by a government like Iran using scrupulous security protocols may very well be able to pull off such an operation with secrecy. A clever enemy would do data mining and espionage to determine a reasonably set of targets to devastate our ability to recover and respond.

Maybe I'm missing something, but it sure seems like a simultaneous, large nuclear attack by terrorists would NOT be that hard using a small group of people planting bombs with timer/cell phone triggers. God knows our lightly controlled borders and cargo inspection system would not be that hard to breach, particularly by using corrupt payoffs for what is thought to be drug or human smuggling. Only ONE illicit container-sized shipment needs to get across the border. In fact a devastating number of warheads could be smuggled in a lot less than one container.

The government's strategy for nuclear attack seems to be:

  1. Prevent the attack (without seriously involving, educating or preparing citizens).

  2. Give citizens a bit of advice that might help some folks on the periphery of any attacks (if we don't suffer a large-scale, simultaneous attack) because the advice is essentially "hunker down or run away somewhere safe" with a few days of emergency supplies.

  3. Deal with the mess afterward if an attack does succeed (hoping it wasn't a serious attack like 10+ city nuclear attack including all the major ones).
Are You Ready? (PDF) (text)

An examination of the Department of Homeland Security's website does include a modest discussion of nuclear attack but the content is quite superficial and provides nothing to CONCRETELY prepare ahead of time, which is vital for survival in most cases if near or downwind from an attack.

OK. To be fair the document DOES discuss shelters. Here's the full discussion:

Taking shelter during a nuclear blast is absolutely necessary. There are two kinds of shelters—blast and fallout. The following describes the two kinds of shelters:

  • Blast shelters are specifically constructed to offer some protection
    against blast pressure, initial radiation, heat, and fire. But even a blast shelter cannot withstand a direct hit from a nuclear explosion.
  • Fallout shelters do not need to be specially constructed for protecting against fallout. They can be any protected space, provided that the walls and roof are thick and dense enough to absorb the radiation given off by fallout particles.

There are NO REFERENCES to any other sources that would provide more details.

Unless you prepare a shelter ahead of time, then if you're in the path for fallout without adequate shelter, you aren't likely to survive the period of high radiation, which can last for weeks. To the best of my understanding, you might survive without special shelter if you're far enough from the blast and the prevailing winds keep the fallout away from you. If you have significant radiation exposure, you'll get ill and might not survive for long. Almost no American basement provides adequate radiation protection, although you could rig up something barely adequate with the proper materials and a little time.

I have no problem with the government using multiple documents to disseminate knowledge because obviously you can't fit everything into one document. The problem is the ONLY thing that seems to exist for citizens is this high-level document (which is more useful for tornadoes, chemical spills, etc). There are NO detailed followup documents that help with nuclear attacks that I could find; I'm pretty sure they don't exist.

Of course the motivated individual CAN find lots of good data on the web that was published 30-50 years ago when we had a better Office of Civil Defense (e.g. details about nuclear weapon effects, how to build a fallout shelter, including some expedient ones).

Why isn't the government publishing up-to-date information covering the details needed to usefully prepare for nuclear attack?

A serious civil defense program might include policies like the following:

  • Sponsoring R&D and certified testing of a wide variety of fallout and blast shelters designs from cheap-and-adequate to expensive-and-premium with plenty of intermediate models.

  • Publishing plenty of documents on shelter theory, design and construction with ample technical detail aimed at multiple audiences including architects, engineers and the motivated layman.
  • Publishing plenty of documents filled with detailed survival skills like radiation detector operation, emergency medicine for laymen, decontamination, shelter life, etc.
  • Creating building codes and recommendations to encourage builders to incorporate fallout or blast shelters into new structures or retrofit them into existing ones. Ideally there would be standard, proven designs of varying cost that owners could choose based on their budgets. Tax policy could offer incentives for building shelter space and preparedness spending.

  • Encouraging a shift in new houses toward more earth-covered structures designed to provide some innate blast protection at all times. These structures would also have lower energy costs.
  • Making some modest and inexpensive changes to building standards if they would substantially improve the survivability or reduce the combustibility of structures at a distance from the blast. At least spread awareness so home buyers can choose these various customizations at their discretion. For example it might be possible to design windows with a coating that lowers the chance that the nuclear flash causes combustibles in a room to ignite (e.g. several miles away ground zero). The idea is improve the overall robustness of our cities with minimal additional cost.

  • Supporting the creation of several standard, trustworthy, survival packages so average citizens can choose among them based on their budget without needing to master a large body of technical knowledge.

  • Creating standards for the full spectrum of products related to WMD protection: shelters, air filtration, NBC suits, radiation detectors, energy production, decontamination aids, blast doors, etc.

  • Supporting the development of EMP-related knowledge and technologies. I plan to discuss this in a future post.

  • Creating vastly improved civil defense warning systems, including detecting nuclear blasts and sending special warnings instantly to the entire surrounding region, giving people on the outskirts of blast zone some time to cover or shelter from the blast wave. Twenty or thirty seconds could save hundreds of thousands of lives and dramatically reduce the severity of injuries which would reduce pressure on emergency medical systems.

  • Encouraging the creation of a civil defense industry that manufactures trustworthy, standard products like air filtration systems, power supplies for shelters, shelter design and construction, blast doors, etc.

  • Making sure we have a two-way communication system that keeps shelter residents in contact with each other and the authorities.
  • Creating hardened infrastructure throughout all our major cities, like vital services, public shelters, tunnel complexes, etc.
  • Creating local community organizations, plans and infrastructure.
  • Encouraging industry to harden their facilities and operations to recover more quickly after an attack, particularly when creating new facilities so the cost isn't prohibitive.

I see the creation of this sort of civil defense infrastructure as "physical" insurance, particularly on a societal level. It won't guarantee individual survival, but it would certainly have a significant impact on keeping more of our citizens alive with fewer severe injuries AND making our society more robust in the aftermath of an attack. It would almost certainly help the county psychologically, since many more people would have practical survival knowledge and would have made significant, useful preparations. Current levels of ignorance and lack of survival infrastructure will likely lead to serious panic after an attack.

Much of cost for developing and deploying this could be amortized over decades so the cost isn't prohibitive and a large civil defense industry could lower costs using economies of scale. More robust structures could replace obsolete ones according to the natural replacement schedule.

I suspect a good fraction of families might not mind adding say $10,000 to the cost of their house and spending a few hundred dollars per year if it substantially improved their safety from this catastrophic risk (these are my somewhat made up numbers but I think they're in the right ballpark for adequate protection).

The main goals are to start spreading greater awareness and increasing our ability to weather these probable attacks. Affordable, decades-long improvement is better than the current lethargy and complete unpreparedness by the vast majority of citizens.

One benefit of pursuing a vigorous civil defense program is its deterrent effect on would-be attackers, since the greater our survivability, the more likely we'd be back on our feet after an attack, hopefully able to identify the attackers (e.g. using various scientific and intelligence techniques) and retaliate punishingly.

If we suffer a horrible attack with our current negligent preparation, I believe the survivors will be furious at our leadership and government legitimacy may well be lost (particularly considering how many other trends are undermining public trust already).

We'd better stop assuming the government will always stop the attack and start preparing the general public to cope with successful attacks.

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