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News of the Day ... In Perspective


Government unprepared for nuclear disaster; volunteers patrol San Francisco Bay

As the United States prepares to commemorate the Sept 11 attack as well as Hurricane Katrina, a group of activist physicians released a report faulting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for lack of preparedness (Geoff Morrell, ABC News 8/31/06).

There are no communication plans to tell the public whether to evacuate or shelter, no radiologic monitoring instruments, and little surge capacity in the medical system, complain prominent members of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR).

There are also no public shelters and no plans to disseminate life-saving information on expedient shelter and radiation detection, notes AAPS Executive Director Jane Orient, M.D., in a just-published article in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons. The rudimentary U.S. civil defense system was dismantled, largely owing to anti-defense activism by PSR and others. The fallout shelter inventory, the state stockpiles of regularly calibrated radiologic instruments, packaged disaster hospitals, and emergency communications were all casualties of PSR opposition.

PSR is now, unapologetically, issuing updated “bombing runs” (The U.S. and Nuclear Terrorism, www.psr.org). In addition to calculating early casualties in an unprepared, unsheltered population, PSR red-lines vast areas that would be “uninhabitable” for decades, with economic losses of trillions of dollars, based on the assertion that “there is no dose threshold at which exposure to radiation is safe.” Their maps show scary plumes from a “dirty bomb,” with doses ranging from 6 rem to as low as one-millionth of a rem—mentioning neither the fact that below 100 rem there would be no acute symptoms, nor the biphasic dose-response curve for radiation exposure (with beneficial effects over a wide range of low doses).

Though not among the PSR scenarios, the detonation of a nuclear weapon in a port facility is one of the likelier possibilities. A RAND study showed that a 10-KT explosion in the Port of Long Beach could cause 60,000 immediate casualties and ten times as much economic damage as the Sept 11 attacks (Greg Krikorian, LA Times 8/16/06).

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), there were 650 cases of illicit trafficking of nuclear and radiologic materials worldwide between 1993 and 2004. As of February, 75 percent of U.S. ports had no ability to screen for nuclear weapons, and only 5 percent of 11 million containers were inspected at all.

The DHS is planning to install $1.15 billion worth of radiation detectors in U.S. ports—by 2011. The new monitors will cost between $600,000 and $800,000 each.

Currently, 14-foot, $180,000 pillars detect gamma rays and high-energy neutrons when container-laden trucks drive between them. However, truck drivers in a hurry drive can drive around the portal, stated Sandia Lab weapons subcontractor Stanley Glaros.

Glaros and his team are plying the waters of San Francisco Bay with a homemade detector costing about $12,000. His biggest headache, Glaros says, is that if he detects something, by the time he gets an official response it may be too late.

“I’ve been in this business since SALT I,” Glaros said. “It’s gonna happen; it’s just a question of when” (Mark Rutherford, Wired News 8/22/06).

While the entire U.S. effort is focused on interdiction (“prevention”) rather than response and recovery, Shanghai just announced completion of an underground bunker, constructed in total secrecy, that can accommodate 200,000 people. Its 2.5 miles of passages cannot compete in scale with the “Underground Great Wall” containing 19 miles of air-raid shelters, which was built beneath Beijing in the 1960s and 1970s (Jane Macartney, Times 7/31/06).

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